In August 1941 Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, commander of Army Group Centre, was bitterly disappointed at the loss of the Moscow operation. Time remained for just one more major offensive, and none were optimistic that Hitler’s drive to seize the Ukraine and isolate Leningrad would be sufficient to force an end to the war. Bock also expressed concern that the morale of the troops should not be forgotten; according to him, they asked only one question: `When will we march to Moscow? We don’t want to get stuck here in winter.’ As things now stood, there could be only one answer to this question. The whole war in the east was being improvised on an almost daily basis, which was the consequence of a fragmented command and competing strategic conceptions. The generals themselves did not know if or when Moscow would be attacked, just as they did not know whether Hitler’s thrust south could be carried out with the available strength, and what risk this would entail for the security of Bock’s weakened army group. One thing, however, was certain, although scarcely understood at the time; the fears the men held of spending the winter deep in the Soviet Union were now assured. The army simply did not have the resources to avoid it and the grinding daily attrition slowly but steadily made this eventuality ever clearer. For the time being, the mass of German troops still believed in the ultimate victory of their Wehrmacht, although none were of any doubt that the Red Army demonstrated an incredible resilience, and that the war still had much hard fighting left in it. Yet the men of Army Group Centre recognised that Moscow was their objective and its capture, it was widely assumed, would bring about an end to the fighting. Many soldiers reasoned that, with two-thirds of the distance covered from the German border to the Soviet capital. It was not to be.
Operations now shifted to the south and north, and with them a degree of strategic clarity emerged which had been absent for many weeks. Still, the gruelling effects of the long period of indecision and internal wrangling left their mark on the higher command with frayed nerves and bitter personal animosity reflective of an army that had suffered a major reversal. The daily business of directing the war went on, of course, but it was no longer a blitzkrieg campaign; now it was a war of endurance – and in such a war the Soviet Union, backed by its allies in the west, was already in the favoured position. No one could yet predict the collapse of the Third Reich, nor a Soviet occupation of Berlin, but by forfeiting its only possibility of eliminating the Soviet Union, Germany was destined for a long war, against an emerging superpower, which it could not hope to overcome. Operation Barbarossa’s failure was more than just a lost campaign; the scale and importance of the eastern theatre ensured that the summer of 1941 was the turning point of World War II.
Throughout late August and September operations on the flanks of Army Group Centre became the focus of German operations and led to more hard won battlefield victories, but at an ever increasing cost to their dwindling offensive strength. Even the great encirclement battle at Kiev, which has in the past attracted attention for its supposed significance as the quintessential example of German operational perfectionism, is in need of careful revision. The same problems, so devastatingly prevalent in the summer campaign, worsened in the autumn, while the German command remained incurably divided and fatally blind to its growing weaknesses. The attritional drain that had begun from the first day of Operation Barbarossa had progressed so far by the end of two months that Germany no longer possessed the ability to defeat the Soviet Union in 1941. Future battles, whether centred on Moscow or the Ukraine, were simply not able to crush the Red Army and conquer the Soviet Union, undermining the persistent arguments favouring one strategic alternative over another. Failure to end the war in another blitzkrieg campaign entailed destructive consequences for Germany and this was a foreseeable reality by the late summer of 1941. On 23 August Ribbentrop conceded to the Japanese ambassador in Berlin, General Oshima, that the war against the Soviet Union might last into 1942. Furthermore, an OKW memorandum dated 27 August stated: `The mandatory collapse of Russia is the next, decisive objective, which must be reached by employing all the troops that can be spared on other fronts. If this aim is not achieved in 1941, the continuation of the eastern campaign will have first priority in 1942.’ Three days later on 30 August von Hassell wrote in his diary: `Hitler is pressing hard for swift advances, but the Army High Command has certain misgivings . . . In any event, it is generally believed that there will be a Russian front through the winter.’ Even Halder now recognised the futility of seeking a knockout blow against the USSR and on 23 August, presumably after hearing the result of Guderian’s fateful meeting with Hitler, he wrote to his wife: `The goal which I had set myself to achieve, namely to finish off the Russians in this year, will not be attained and we will have a strength-draining eastern front over the winter.’ Yet Halder was still incapable of understanding the full implications of this for Germany’s chances in the ongoing world war. It was only in late November 1941, long after the intended blitzkrieg had failed, that Halder belatedly observed: `It is possible that the war is shifting from the level of military success to the level of moral and economic endurance.’ To others in the German command, the decisive importance of the summer of 1941 became clear after the war. Although erroneously claiming that Hitler ruined the army’s grand plan for assured victory by not striking towards Moscow, Heusinger and Hoth both identified the summer campaign as the turning point of the war. As Heusinger wrote:
The Army High Command’s opposition to this decision [to send Guderian and Weichs south into the Ukraine] had been in vain. Hitler had brushed all their arguments aside. He left the ground of purely operational command following basic military principles in favour of other aspects. This was the decisive turning point of the Eastern campaign.
Likewise, Hoth described Hitler’s plan to strike towards the north and south as `the decision of the war’.
In the strategic crisis that dominated the German command for a month in July and August 1941, Hitler emerged the undisputed victor. He not only asserted his authority over the army and prevailed against almost unanimous opposition, but his strategic choice was certainly the wiser alternative given both German logistical constraints and the dreadful Soviet strategic deployment in the south. Yet his triumph in taking control of the campaign from the OKH was never really in doubt once he had made up his mind to do so, and even if he did offer a better alternative for the next phase of the campaign, by the late summer of 1941, he could not change the fundamentally flawed undertaking that Barbarossa represented. If Hitler’s victory over the army was any kind of victory at all, it was only a hollow success in a war that was doomed to be lost. Perhaps, therefore, the historical reference to a `July/August crisis’ should be thought of, not in reference to a somewhat trivial strategic debate fought out between the military commanders and Hitler, but rather as a reflection of the catastrophic predicament Germany now confronted in the east.