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Myths of the Eastern Front

Discussion in 'Eastern Europe' started by Comrade General, May 19, 2015.

  1. Comrade General

    Comrade General Member

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    The aim of this thread is to debunk both pro-USSR and pro-German myths that surround the Eastern Front, in order to give Western audiences access to the more objective truth about this very important theater of WWII. My aim is not to glamorize or demonize either side. There were heroes and heroines on both sides, both recognized and unsung, and there was unquestionably brutality and cruelty (some arguably defensible, some of it not) by both the German and Soviet states, neither of which was known for its merciful use of state power (not that state power is commonly used for mercy...).

    I think this topic is especially needed because both Nazi Germany and the USSR have been enemies of the USA and its allies, and thus fabrications have abounded, especially in popular culture, that make it easy to hate both sides and think of them as equally evil. Hopefully most of us are adults who long ago realized that there is no such thing as monsters and that we do not live in a black-and-white world of "good guys" and "bad guys." Reality is much more complicated than that, and understanding this is an important first step to separating fact from fiction.

    I am going to list some myths that I can think of off the top of my head. Please feel free to add more, why those myths are wrong and PLEASE provide sources where you can. You don't have to be super specific, but I plan to add sources as I write this, and as an aspiring academic I believe it's important to cite where your statistics and arguments come from. However, since some of these myths are easily debunked by common sense, I'm not going to cite every single argument that is made here.

    General Winter Won the War.

    This is probably the easiest to debunk because, logically, if the only thing keeping the German Wehrmacht from total triumph had been the weather, then all the German commanders had to do was wait until spring and summer to achieve victory. Considering how deeply the Germans penetrated the USSR in 1941, then by this reasoning the war would likely have been over by the fall of 1942. Obviously, the fact that Hitler imagined that the invasion of the USSR would be over in a matter of months and therefore did not adequately supply his armed forces for the unpaved roads and harsh winters of the Soviet climate played a role both in the demoralization of German soldiers as well as the failure of their vehicles and equipment. Yet, we know that the Soviets obtained major victories even when they did not have the winter on their side. The Battle of Kursk was fought and won in July 1943. Operation Bagration, which pushed the Germans out of the Belorussian SSR and eastern Poland took place from June to August in 1944. And let us not forget that the climatic Battle of Berlin happened in April 1945, coinciding nicely with Hitler’s birthday!

    There is little doubt that the winter of 1941/1942 was exceptionally harsh and brutal for both the Germans and the Soviets (link). Depending on your sources, however, just how severe the temperatures were during November, December and January. Field Marshal von Bock wrote in his diary on November 5, 1941, that the temperature was -29C/-20F, whereas Albert Seaton stated that around November 24 it was -30C/-22F. Marshal Zhukov in Moscow reported that it was around -7C to -10C (19F to 14F). In memoirs, unit histories and so on you will find extremes of -53C (-63F).

    Just how cold it was is essentially irrelevant because troops unprepared for winter weather run the risk of frostbite, full stop, end of sentence. Ironically, the Combat Studies Institute where I got the above figures from (link) focuses a great deal on how extreme temperatures and snowfall hindered the Red Army more than the Wehrmact. In fact, because the climate slowed down the Soviet counteroffensive in early 1942, the overextended and exposed Army Group Center was given a respite. To be sure, cold and snow served to help defenders on both sides.

    According to the report I just cited, the Germans suffered about 100,000 cases of frostbite, more than 14,000 of which required amputations. By the end of the 1941/1942 winter the number of frostbite victims exceeded a quarter of a million, and more than 90% were second- and third-degree cases. That is of course leaving out the considerable number of troops who fell victim to influenza, pneumonia and trenchfoot. This was especially hard for the Germans, because with every soldier they lost, they lost an irreplaceable veteran of previous blitzkriegs.

    The Red Army, by contrast, could produce replacements from its vast manpower resources. It had also learned from the Finnish war and provided troops with padded jackets and trousers, fur gloves, and warm hats. Be that as it may, the Red Army was not immune to the negative impact of weather. For example, in 1942 the Soviet government could only produce enough boots to supply 0.3 pairs for every person in the country. In some instances, shipments of clothing were stacked without clothing and lost to mildew. Officers and other rear area personnel had to forgo greatcoats in the spring.

    All in all, it is wrong to state that General Winter won the war for the Red Army, although it is correct to acknowledge that the winter -- especially the severe winter of 1941/42 -- combined with a lack of German preparedness to contribute to the ultimate German defeat. "Blaming" the weather for a defeat in Russia is nothing new, and Napoleon tried it himself. It shouldn't have worked for him, and it shouldn't work for the Germans.

    The Soviets Only Won Through Brutality (shooting retreating troops, etc.)

    The Germans Only Lost Because of Hitler's Meddling!

    It is true that both Hitler and Stalin meddled with their field commanders from time to time, but they were not always wrong. According to Glantz, Hitler listened to the advice of his commanders for the first year and a half during the invasion of the Soviet Union. Indeed, he often tolerated those who disagreed with his orders. When General Hans-Valentin Hube decided in August in 1942 to disobey direct orders from Hitler to hold the banks of the Volga and attempt a breakout with 16th Panzer which had become encircled, Hube was not sanctioned but instead promoted to commander of XIV Panzer Corps the next month. In July 1942, Hitler even joked with his generals about the tendency of the British leaders to fire generals in North Africa after a single defeat.

    The German Defeat In the USSR Was Inevitable.

    The Soviet Union Won WWII On Its Own. (You’re Welcome!)
     
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  2. OpanaPointer

    OpanaPointer I Point at Opana Patron   WW2|ORG Editor

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    I've seen a quote from one rather testy Soviet general that went approximately like this: "We had the same snow. We had the same cold. Russian winter plays no favorites."

    Fine, but one side as ready for -40° weather, the other wasn't.
     
  3. LRusso216

    LRusso216 Graybeard Staff Member Patron  

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    A good read is Eastern Inferno for the diary of a German soldier on the Eastern Front. It gives the point of view of the common German soldier commenting on the weather, the brutality of both sides, and a host of other issues he faced. The book was edited by Christine Alexander and Mason Kunze, his grandchildren and members of this site.
     
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  4. Smiley 2.0

    Smiley 2.0 Smiles

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    @Comrade General: One thing that has been debated somewhat is whether the Soviets would really ram their tanks into German tanks during Prokhorovka. Now I have discovered some pictures that show Russian armored vehicles that ran into German vehicles, but they are not from Kursk or Prokhorovka. I have also found some sources that say that there were several cases where Russian armor would ram into German armor or other equipment deliberately. This has been the subject of some debate earlier on this forum in another thread, but would you consider this another myth, especially since its been of some debate about whether it actually happened?

    http://tankarchives.blogspot.com/2013/06/ramming-speed.html
     
  5. Fred Wilson

    Fred Wilson "The" Rogue of Rogues

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    One of my fav lectures... if you've got the time...

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Clz27nghIg
     
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  6. KJ Jr

    KJ Jr Well-Known Member Patron  

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    Thanks Lou. I'll definitely pick it up.
     
  7. LJAd

    LJAd Well-Known Member

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    You can't be ready for -40° and -40 ° was very exceptional,thus there was no need to be ready for -40°

    If -40° was more than exceptional and the Germans were not ready,no German would have survived,but most survived the cold (99 %)
     
  8. USMCPrice

    USMCPrice Idiot at Large Patron  

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    Please clarify, because on the surface your statements appear to be incorrect.
     
  9. lwd

    lwd Ace

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    Whether that's a myth or not depends to some extent on how you look at it. For instance if a number of factors leave you say 1% shy of victory and then another factor supplies that extra 1% or a bit more does it mean that it "won the war" or not? English is ambiguous enough to have it either way. Certainly I've never heard an argument that the Russian Winter was the only thing that stopped the Germans. How could it since it didn't stop well prepared civilians?

    Certainly without the Russian resistance it wouldn't have. However that doesn't mean that waiting would mean a German victory. The Russians were rebuilding the Red Army and the longer the delays the more time they had. So what might have been possible in good weather in 41 was not necessarily possible in good weather in 42 and certainly not by 44 or 45.

    I'm not at all certain this is a myth especially by 42. The German economy was in many ways a giant Ponzy scheme it's not clear to me that even if they defeat the Soviets that the Nazi regime would have survived. It might have lasted longer and commited even more attrocities but IMO in the long run it was doomed. On another scale by 42 if one compares the resources the allies have vs those of the axis powers as long as the allies have the will and don't make a long series of critical errors the axis are doomed, again IMO.
     
  10. squidly the octopus

    squidly the octopus New Member

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    By 1942 there's no question that defeat was inevitable for Germany. I would not call this a myth. With respect to 1941, could Germany have done things differently/earlier? This has been argued on one side or the other for 70 years. Even if the answer is affirmative, that if Germany had just done this or that differently that she could have been victorious... well.... clearly there wasn't a lot of margin for error. Meanwhile the Soviets had plenty of margin for it, as did the Western Allies in due course.
     
  11. Comrade General

    Comrade General Member

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    There is little doubt that the winter of 1941/1942 was exceptionally harsh and brutal for both the Germans and the Soviets (link). Depending on your sources, however, just how severe the temperatures were during November, December and January. Field Marshal von Bock wrote in his diary on November 5, 1941, that the temperature was -29C/-20F, whereas Albert Seaton stated that around November 24 it was -30C/-22F. Marshal Zhukov in Moscow reported that it was around -7C to -10C (19F to 14F). In memoirs, unit histories and so on you will find extremes of -53C (-63F).

    Just how cold it was is essentially irrelevant because troops unprepared for winter weather run the risk of frostbite, full stop, end of sentence. Ironically, the Combat Studies Institute where I got the above figures from (link) focuses a great deal on how extreme temperatures and snowfall hindered the Red Army more than the Wehrmact. In fact, because the climate slowed down the Soviet counteroffensive in early 1942, the overextended and exposed Army Group Center was given a respite. To be sure, cold and snow served to help defenders on both sides.

    According to the report I just cited, the Germans suffered about 100,000 cases of frostbite, more than 14,000 of which required amputations. By the end of the 1941/1942 winter the number of frostbite victims exceeded a quarter of a million, and more than 90% were second- and third-degree cases. That is of course leaving out the considerable number of troops who fell victim to influenza, pneumonia and trenchfoot. This was especially hard for the Germans, because with every soldier they lost, they lost an irreplaceable veteran of previous blitzkriegs.

    The Red Army, by contrast, could produce replacements from its vast manpower resources. It had also learned from the Finnish war and provided troops with padded jackets and trousers, fur gloves, and warm hats. Be that as it may, the Red Army was not immune to the negative impact of weather. For example, in 1942 the Soviet government could only produce enough boots to supply 0.3 pairs for every person in the country. In some instances, shipments of clothing were stacked without clothing and lost to mildew. Officers and other rear area personnel had to forgo greatcoats in the spring.

    All in all, it is wrong to state that General Winter won the war for the Red Army, although it is correct to acknowledge that the winter -- especially the severe winter of 1941/42 -- combined with a lack of German preparedness to contribute to the ultimate German defeat. "Blaming" the weather for a defeat in Russia is nothing new, and Napoleon tried it himself. It shouldn't have worked for him, and it shouldn't work for the Germans.
     
  12. Comrade General

    Comrade General Member

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    I have modified the OP to make it clear that I meant a German invasion of the Soviet Union was inherently doomed, not that Germany overall was fated to lose WWII.
     
  13. lwd

    lwd Ace

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    With respect to winter there were also the impacts on vehicles and the log network in addition to those on individuals. How important it also depends on what you include in the "General Winter" effects. Does the mud season count?

    As for inevitable. For the first month there was perhaps a chance that the invasion would have succeeded. Had Stalin lost his nerve or been replaced or even a significant coup mounted against him the Soviets Union might not have survived. But again how likely were the Nazis to profit by the invasion? I can see alternatives which result in the collapse of the USSR but don't result in the survival of Nazi Germany. Would such a result qualify as a success or not?
     
  14. Kai-Petri

    Kai-Petri Kenraali

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    In a big way I agree. But If Stalin had given Zhukov permission to attack in Blitzkrieg style the AGC would have been annihilated. Instead he wanted a broad front attack and killed all his reserves. German victory there. However the germans lost much of their NCO´s and probably officers and soldiers who fought since 1939 and material like trucks, artillery,tanks,etc.

    That is why in 1942 the germans could only start the offensive in the AGS area with close to 70% full strentght of everything with other army groups emptied. Quite simple. However, the germans were able to destroy the Soviet offensive at Kharkov may 1942,Crimea summer 1942, and almost took Stalingrad as Stalin believed until the very end that the 6th Army would not turn north towards Moscow.
     
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  15. Carronade

    Carronade Ace

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    Good post, Comrade General! I am a bit puzzled by comments like "[the Red Army] had also learned from the Finnish war and provided troops with padded jackets and trousers, fur gloves, and warm hats." Surely the Russians were familiar with the weather in their own country prior to 1939? Failure to supply cold weather clothing suggests mismanagement or indifference on the part of the army or national command, unless as you say they were simply unable to produce enough.

    On the German side, some people write as though they too were taken by surprise by the Russian weather. That hardly seems likely, especially since they had fought in Russia for four years in WWI. The problem in 1941 seems to have been mainly logistics. Guderian famously noted that winter clothing supplies had not gotten futher than Warsaw; there was simply not capacity to move them to the front in addition to, or perhaps we should say in competition with, troops, ammunition, and other supplies.
     
  16. squidly the octopus

    squidly the octopus New Member

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    It's equally puzzling from the US side.... the US Army always seemed to be caught by surprise by the onset of winter, although they were not fighting on home ground. Not that this really has anything to do with the thread topic.
     
  17. Kai-Petri

    Kai-Petri Kenraali

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    The Red Army thought that they could walk in to Finland and people would welcome them with flowers. Also many units were from Ukraine, what do they know about snow and skis and winter. In two weeks they were meant to be in Helsinki.Well, that is propaganda anyways. Also the roads were narrow and the Finns could stop convoys by shooting the first and last vehicle to fire, and destroy the rest piece by piece.Simple but effective. I must say I feel sorry for the Red Army soldiers who died like that but Stalin is to blame.
     
  18. squidly the octopus

    squidly the octopus New Member

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    As for the myth of "Germany only lost due to Hitler's meddling" there is probably some kernel of truth in that, as I'm not the first person to note that Nazi ideology itself did a lot to prevent a German victory..... to wit..... Ukraine saw Russia as an oppressor, and upon her "liberation" Germany suddenly had access to a potential pool of more than a million (maybe more than 2 million?) new recruits eager to kill Russians who they could have put to work toward just that end, which could have tipped the balance on the Eastern Front..... but rather than make use of them the Nazis just oppressed them like the other peoples they had conquered. This also holds true for other parts of Russia, Belorussia, Moldova etc. which were conquered.
     
  19. OpanaPointer

    OpanaPointer I Point at Opana Patron   WW2|ORG Editor

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    The point there was that Russian tanks would start in -40° temps and German tanks wouldn't. The Sovs knew the tricks of surviving in that weather. The Germans wore hobnail boots, which transmitted the cold right through the boots to the feet.
     
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  20. LJAd

    LJAd Well-Known Member

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    There was no fighting at -40°,because even the Soviet soldiers could not fight at -40°
     

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