Andrew Nagorski’s book, The Greatest Battle, is a fascinating study of how an epic World War Two struggle can get lost in historical memory because it did not suit the political interests of Soviet leaders who chose to bury this embarrassing story. In both Russia and the West, the battle for Stalingrad and the human drama of the siege of Leningrad are much better known and celebrated. These were clear-cut Soviet victories over the Nazis.
In Nagorski’s judgment, the battle for Moscow was “arguably the most important battle of World War II and inarguably the largest battle between two armies of all time.” Approximately seven million troops were involved in some portion of this battle, and of those seven million, 2.5 million were killed, taken prisoner, missing or wounded badly enough to require hospitalization. Overall Soviet losses were 1,896,500, three times the number of German casualties that totaled 615,000.
The battle for Moscow marked the first time that Hitler’s armies failed to be victorious with their Blitzkrieg tactics. After crushing Poland, France and much of Western Europe in 1939-40, the Nazi army looked unstoppable. That was the case until they invaded Russia in June 1941. Their defeat at Moscow and the opening of a second front marked the beginning of the end of the Wehrmacht’s campaign of aggression – the earliest turning point in the war.
The Nazi Attack
Despite the German-Soviet Agreement of Friendship signed on September 29, 1939, within one year Hitler issued Directive 21, his secret order for Operation Barbarossa – the planned attack on the Soviet Union. Hitler was obsessed with his hatred of Russia, a country he dismissed as “a Slavic-Tartar body” with “a Jewish head.”
Repeated warnings of a pending Nazi attack on Russia did nothing to convince Stalin that he needed to prepare for this invasion. Stalin distrusted his own intelligence agents and was convinced that warnings from the West were meant to sow discord between Moscow and Berlin. Even visible signs of German military preparations in the border regions did nothing to change Stalin’s mind.
On June 22, 1941, the Nazi army launched an attack on Russia with three million troops, 3,550 tanks, 2,770 aircraft and about 6,000 horses. Another half-million troops were provided by Finland and Romania, which were German allies. This was the largest military force ever assembled.
Hitler’s decision to attack Russia in 1941 was a calculated gamble, a gamble that made this front the central factor in the life-or-death struggle for the Nazi effort to build a Thousand-Year Reich. There was no doubt that the Germans needed to conquer Moscow in order to deal a mortal blow to the Soviet state. Yet for some inexplicable reason, just when this goal was within reach, Hitler hesitated. Much to the dismay of his generals, Hitler did not seem to know what he wanted to do and he surprised his officers by reallocating part of his invading force to other targets in the Ukraine. This proved to be a massive error that gave the Russians the first glimmer of hope that they might be able to survive the Nazi attack.
The Defense of Moscow
As Nazi forces approached the outskirts of Moscow in October 1941, the city erupted in panic. The rush to leave Moscow was close to a stampede. All roads leading east from Moscow were jammed and police officers largely disappeared. Looters attacked shops and invaded the homes of those who had left. While countless Muscovites fled to the east, others decided to make their stand against the Germans and devoted themselves to preparing defenses to stop any further Nazi advances. The sense of danger was in the air when reports circulated throughout Moscow that German troops were only twenty-five miles from the city’s outskirts. From the air, the Germans made their presence known on an almost daily basis with new bombing raids.
The courage of the Muscovites who stayed to fight got an enormous boost when Stalin decided to send a large part of the forces in the Soviet Far East to Moscow and other cities to aid in their defense. These forces, known as the Siberians, dramatically changed the situation in Moscow and shocked the Germans. Approximately 250,000 fresh troops from the Far East, properly outfitted with winter clothing, helped blunt the Nazi offensive and gradually began to push them back.
After the war was over, German officers argued that the Russian winter was what defeated them. This infuriates the Russians, who argue that they had to fight under the same conditions. This, of course, is true. Why did Hitler fail to equip his troops with winter gear and why did he hesitate to attack Moscow when he had the chance in the late summer of 1941? These failures, together with his decision to deploy troops elsewhere when he had the advantage in the early months of the Nazi attack, ultimately lead to the defeat of the Nazi invaders.
In retrospect, Nagorski concludes, “Hitler’s failure to reach Moscow did signal the beginning of his end, but only the very beginning . . . . Moscow’s defenders paid a horrific price, but they changed the course of history not just for their own country but also for everyone locked in the struggle against Hitler’s Germany.”
In light of this, it is no wonder that Russians today take great pride in their defeat of the Nazi regime, a role often minimized in the West. When times are difficult during tumultuous periods of transition, nostalgia for past glories can become a source of pride that brings stability and offers the possibility of a future hope.