Prit Buttar, you’ve written about the defeat of Army Group South (AGS) in 1944. Why write about this theatre, and this stage of the Eastern Front?
This was the year when the Red Army completed its evolution from the ‘stumbling colossus’ of 1941 to the war machine capable of defeating the Wehrmacht. It was the end of a long, painful learning curve, and not enough credit has been given to the growing expertise of Soviet forces. This was also a period in which the Wehrmacht’s decline reached a critical stage and German defeat became certain.
One of the commanders of AGS, Erich von Manstein, was keen to propagate the myth of the ‘clean Wehrmacht’, yet despite this, and evidence that he was aware of war crimes, the myth persisted well beyond the end of the war – why was this?
From the late 1940s onwards, German generals published their accounts of the fighting and concentrated on their military aspects, either ignoring war crimes or passing the blame to rear area units. The Western World largely accepted much of this narrative, not least because the Soviet Union was now the new enemy in the Cold War and there was a growing need to rehabilitate West Germany into the new alliance facing the Iron Curtain. Soviet memoirs emerged much later, and faced language barriers as well as a general view in the West that Soviet historiography was too politically ideological to be reliable.
Alongside this, the Wehrmacht has enjoyed a narrative of that of a well led and efficient army that was only undone by sheer numbers of Soviet troops. Is that a correct description?
No. The Red Army learned how to fight a modern war in the most testing of circumstances and at huge cost. Undoubtedly, numbers played a part, but the traditional view of the technically superior Wehrmacht ignores the evolution of the Red Army and also fails to address numerous errors made by the Germans – the war wasn’t lost purely because of Hitler’s interference, and German generals weren’t always infallible.
By 1944 we now know Germany was headed for certain defeat – was that clear to both AGS commanders and the ranks in the early days of that year? What of the Red Army, did they view 1944 as the year to crush AGS?
At a senior level, the Germans must have been aware that defeat was inevitable. Manstein repeatedly demanded major reinforcements to stop the Red Army (as did Model in the west, later in 1944) and must have known that reinforcements on that scale were not available. The Red Army’s senior commanders were increasingly confident, but in early 1944 they were still cautious, and knew that there was still a great deal to be done. But the success of their rolling offensives in the first third of 1944 must have left them with little doubt about final victory.
As for the rank and file, this is a difficult question to answer. Even in 1944, many (perhaps most) ordinary German soldiers still believed in the Führer, despite the evidence of their own experiences. Most officers probably had a less trusting attitude and could see the writing on the wall. In the Red Army, it’s arguable that ordinary soldiers never stopped believing that they would ultimately win the war. The memoirs of soldiers often describe how they doubted whether they might individually survive to see final victory, but few were in doubt – or at least, few of those who wrote about it were in doubt.
Whilst AGS had their hands full in summer 1944, the July plot took place. How much of an impact did this attempt on Hitler’s life have on the troops?
The July Plot came as a genuine shock to most German soldiers, who were horrified that such a betrayal could have occurred. The importance of the ‘oath’ taken by German officers pledging personal allegiance to Hitler is easy to dismiss, but was regarded as almost sacrosanct. Had the plot succeeded, it is almost impossible to know how the rank and file would have reacted; many would have been relieved to be able to go home and end the war, but given how easily the ‘stab in the back’ legend grew after the First World War, it’s easy to see how a similar legend could quickly have developed. Perhaps the most visible consequence of the plot for ordinary soldiers was the increasing political control of the army with greater use of NSFOs (‘National Socialist Leadership Officers’), operating much like Soviet commissars.
In your book you’re very clear that the Red Army had developed into an efficient fighting force by the end of 1944. Was this appreciated by the German High Command?
It’s hard to say. The memoirs of Manstein and others gave almost no credit to the enemies of Germany, in the east or the west. Even well into 1944, they clung to any slight sign that the Soviet Union might finally be running out of men, ignoring the plentiful signs that their own resources were manifestly running out. Defeat on the battlefield was almost never attributed to the skill of the enemy, but they must have been aware that they were no longer dealing with the lumbering, clumsy enemy of 1941.
You’re a historian with many published works on the Eastern front in both world wars, also published across eastern Europe – do you think we in the west have enough of an understanding about the clashes between Germany and Russia that impacted so heavily on countries throughout eastern Europe?
No. The constant obsession with ‘Britain stood alone’ shows a terrible lack of understanding of the reality of the war, even purely in the west; even when Britain was ‘alone’ from the fall of France to the summer of 1941, it was backed by the huge resources of the British Empire. The scale of the fighting on the Eastern Front dwarfed the fighting elsewhere – more Soviet citizens, soldiers and civilians combined, died in the Siege of Leningrad than British Empire war dead from two world wars. Without the huge sacrifice and contribution of the Soviet Union, and the industrial might of the USA, Britain would have been ground down. Also, post-war Soviet thinking can only be understood if you comprehend the scale of the Eastern Front, the loss of life and the material destruction. It’s only then that you can see why the Soviet Union vowed that no future war would be fought on Soviet territory and maintained such a powerful offensive capability – if there was to be another war, they intended to makes sure it was in someone else’s country.
What are you working on next?
My next book, The Meat Grinder: The Rzhev Salient, 1942-1943 will be published next year. In the past few weeks, I’ve been working on a book entitled Lights in the Darkness, an account of the Lithuanian Holocaust, contrasting the behaviour of some of the perpetrators and those who struggled to save lives. Next year, I plan to start work on a two-book account of the Siege of Leningrad.
Prit Buttar is a general practitioner and historian. He is the author of Retribution: The Soviet Reconquest of Central Ukraine, 1943 and Between Giants: The Battle for the Baltics in World War Two. His latest book is The Reckoning: The Defeat of Army Group South, 1944, published by Osprey.
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