Book Review: Christian Hartmann’s Operation Barbarossa: Nazi Germany’s War in the East, 1941-1945

28 Oct

Judging a book by its cover: The author’s writing is as intriguing and insightful as the jacket’s photograph

Hartmann, Christian. Operation Barbarossa: Nazi Germany’s War in the East, 1941-1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Christian Hartmann’s Operation Barbarossa: Nazi Germany’s War in the East, 1941-1945, is a fresh new look at Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union and War on the Eastern Front. Published by Oxford University Press in October 2013, Hartmann’s perspective is unique—a German military historian who draws upon new research from German and Soviet documents. Hartmann’s extraordinary background includes: historian at the Institut fur Zeitgeschichte in Munich, and is a senior lecturer at the Staff College of the Armed Forces in Hamburg. He is also a board member of the German Committee for the History of the Second World War, and a historical advisor to the History Channel in Germany. Hartmann is widely published on the history of Germany in the Second World War. He is also editor of four volumes in the German Documents on Foreign Policy series, and editor in chief to a new edition of Mein Kampf, due out in 2015 (Christian Hartmann, jacket to Operation Barbarossa: Nazi Germany’s War in the East, 1941-1945. [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013]).

Hartmann’s Operation Barbarossa is an exceptional contribution to the historiography of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, War on the Eastern Front, and Nazi Germany’s ultimate downfall in 1945. As a historian who favors history of the War on the Eastern Front, I enjoyed this book immensely. Hartmann’s offering holds value for the reader or scholar of academic history as well as the casual reader of popular history. It is worthy of mention that this book is neither a battle history nor review of Eastern Front campaigns. For such history, historians David M. Glantz and Jonathan House have written much on this history; When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler is one such laudable contribution from this research team. Hartmann’s Operation Barbarossa is a far more interesting “big picture” study of Hitler’s failure on the Eastern Front. This valuable addition to the existing literature benefits not only from contemporary research, but proposes totalitarian dictatorship-perspectives similar to that of German historian Karl Dietrich Bracher, author of The German Dictatorship, and national-socialist views similar to that of German historian Martin Broszat (1926-1989).

Invading the Soviet Union was Adolf Hitler’s grand delusional strategic error, and Hartmann suggests that Germany’s war was lost as early as 1940, prior to the Barbarossa invasion in June, 1941. He notes that Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union involved the proliferation of equine power—750,000 horses, similar to Napoleon Bonaparte’s fate in 1812. Furthermore, that by 1943, one-in-three Wehrmacht soldiers was not German (Ibid., 27-30). Hartmann’s research uncovers new information on the Soviet home front. That the concept of ‘Total War’ characterized the Second World War, Stalin’s people shared equally in victory and casualty numbers: “By the end of the war, the Soviet Union had mobilized 30.6 million soldiers, 820,000 of them women” (Ibid., 42).

Hartmann’s Operation Barbarossa looks beyond the borders of Germany and Hitler’s plans. The author explores the question from the Soviet perspective: “Did the Soviet leadership—did, above all, the Soviet dictator Joseph V. Stalin (1878-1953)—have an inkling of what was being prepared in the West? Yes and no” (Ibid., 19). Hartmann’s discussion of the political climate in Europe is very well done, similar to that of Richard Overy’s The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia. The author goes beyond comparison of dictatorships however; by analysis of Hitler’s motives and possible European conquests as considered by Stalin in 1939, Hartmann’s Operation Barbarossa shines.

Hartmann poses the question “Why did Nazi Germany lose the war?” He astutely offers explanations that go beyond the common acceptance which suggests Soviet numerical superiority of combatants and resources (Ibid., 145). Hartmann suggests that it was Hitler as amateur tactician, Nazi Germany’s Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe both ill-prepared for the Soviet invasion, and Stalin allowed his field commanders to strategize, employ their own tactics, thus completely leading their troops in battle. Technology also dictated defeat for the German Army: “The Soviet Armed Forces had relatively few types of modern, effective weapons available to them, but those they did have, they had in masses. This situation was precisely reversed for their German opponents: and endless array of types, but no strengths in depth” (Ibid., 146-149). Finally, and most notably, Hitler failed to win over the Soviet people early in the war, in 1941—the Wehrmacht was “often being joyfully received in the Soviet Union’s westernmost territories and desertion was threatening to undermine the very existence of the Red Army” (Ibid., 150-151). That the Second World War was Total War for its combatant nations, it was that and more for the Soviet Union— it was their Great Patriotic War.

Christian Hartmann’s Operation Barbarossa: Nazi Germany’s War in the East, 1941-1945 is now available on the Oxford University Press website.

– Scott Lyons


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