Book Review: Operation Barbarossa: Nazi Germany’s War in the East by Christian Hartmann

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Operation Barbarossa: Nazi Germany’s War in the East, 1941-1945

is one of those rare books about WWII written by a German historian and translated into English.  That is not to say that there are not plenty of books in German about WWII and examining its myriad aspects, there are, it is just that most are never translated into English.  There is generally a flood of new WWII histories every year and almost of all of them are written by English speakers.  That lack of translation leaves most English speaker with a curiously one sided view of the war.  Much has been done to rectify the Anglo-centric view of victory in WWII over the past decade or so and this book is an important contribution to that effort.

The book is fairly short, at 166 pages of text with a chronology, further reading list, and index.  It is separated into nine chronological and thematic chapters.  There are a few large scale theater maps but no smaller scale maps as the book does not delve into operational or tactical movement.

The work opens by talking about the why of the invasion of Russia and the politics behind it.  There is no great operational or strategic discussion of the movement of the vast armies involved in the war in the East.  So if you are expecting a traditional battle history from this book prepare to be disappointed.  What the author offers instead is an explanation of why and how the war was fought and of the way in which it was fought.  This is no apologetic either. This book provides a very good summary of the good and bad on both sides and there was some.  Neither the Nazis nor the Soviets were monolithic despite what decades of WWII histories would have us believe.  In many ways Stalin’s Russia was just as, if not more, evil than Hitler’s Germany and that fact comes out clearly in this book.

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about this book is the unbiased, indeed almost clinical, way in which the methods and motives of both sides are discussed.  This book represents modern German Militärgeschichte at its best and while I am more of a Kriegsgeschichte type historian I must admit that for all its brevity, this book is a valuable addition to the growing body of work on WWII in the East.  I highly recommend this book.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Operation Barbarossa: Nazi Germany’s War in the East by Christian Hartmann”

  1. I have a few questions about this book, as someone dissatisfied with Beevor-esque narrative. First of all, why wasn’t Paulus relieved of duty early on? The man was a disaster. Two, how could Germany allow so many resources to get stuck in a worthless target such as Stalingrad, where the devolution into hand to hand urban warfare favored the Russians? If this book can help me understand these two questions, my copy will be ordered immediately.

    • The book doesn’t really help answer these two questions as these are both more operational level questions than politico/strategic. It does briefly delve into the logic of the Stalingrad battle. The basic answer to Stalingrad is simple, the battle became more a fight of prestige than military reality. Hitler saw something symbolic in taking Stalin’s namesake city and determined he would do it. In the end, he failed and destroyed a good third of the German eastern combat power doing so.

    • This is the same thing we can hear from the history channel documentaries. Point being, Paulus was an absolute disaster, and you should NEVER give away your competitive advantage for psychological trophies. Germany should have focused on the true prize = the oil fields to the south, and let their worthless auxiliaries (Romanians, Hungarians, and Italians) duke it out with the Russians with shovels. The Germans had absolutely no advantage in hand to hand combat, they were ordered for synchronized warfare, and it was impossible for the Luftwaffe to help the Wehrmacht when the Bolsheviks were hugging their position in the smoking rubble.

    • Paulus was actually a good commander put into an impossible situation. The Germans biggest problem on the Eastern Front was strategic distraction of which, Stalingrad is simply the best example. I would argue that the Germans should have concentrated on destroying the Red Army through the maintenance of a mobile war of maneuver and continued trying to achieve the cauldron battles that netted them so much russian combat power in 1941 and the early summer of 42.
      The Caucasus oilfields were worthless to the Germans as long as an undefeated Red Army was in the field. The goal in warfare always must be the destruction of the enemy will to fight, whether that is accomplished through killing enemy soldiers or occupying enemy territory is tactics at best. Clausewitz has that point right. How you destroy that will is the essence of being a great commander. Clausewitzian theory does not require great battles of destruction, it requires thought in how to bend the enemy to your will. That thought is what was lacking in the entire German conception of WWII. That lack can be attributed solely to Hitler, who directed the war effort from beginning to end.

    • Germany did this successfully with France, “the fifth column,” etc. But clearly it would have made sense to at least pretend to respect Eastern Europeans, so as not to push them towards their natural enemies, the Bolsheviks. Had they tried to create a wider version of the Waffen SS for Eastern Europeans, and promise a share of the spoils, they could have mobilized everyone against Moscow.

    • One of the biggest German mistakes was not using local resentments against the Communists to their advantage. Their would have been plenty of time post-war to implement their racial policies but I think two practical considerations played into their decision to not seek more local support. One, their ideology prohibited it, the German hierarchy just could not see any value in using locals even if that meant damaging the German war effort. Two, arming and training locals to fight for the Germans would have meant even more difficulty implementing racial policy post war. Thus it was better to start right away and kill as many as possible up front.

      I also think that many in the high command but outside Hitler’s inner circle knew the war was lost much sooner than most histories would have us believe.

Comments are closed.