Reluctantly Hitler gave in to the urging of Brauchitsch, Halder and Bock and consented to the resumption of the drive on Moscow. But too late! Halder saw him on the afternoon of September 5 and now the Fuehrer, his mind made up, was in a hurry to get to the Kremlin. “Get started on the central front within eight to ten days,” the Supreme Commander ordered. (“Impossible!” Halder exclaimed in his diary.) “Encircle them, beat and destroy them,” Hitler added, promising to return to Army Group Center Guderian’s panzer group, then still heavily engaged in the Ukraine, and add Reinhardt’s tank corps from the Leningrad front. But it was not until the beginning of October that the armored forces could be brought back, refitted and made ready. On October 2 the great offensive was finally launched. “Typhoon” was the code name. A mighty wind, a cyclone, was to hit the Russians, destroy their last fighting forces before Moscow and bring the Soviet Union tumbling down.
But here again the Nazi dictator became a victim of his megalomania. Taking the Russian capital before winter came was not enough. He gave orders that Field Marshal von Leeb in the north was at the same time to capture Leningrad, make contact with the Finns beyond the city and drive on and cut the Murmansk railway. Also, at the same time, Rundstedt was to clear the Black Sea coast, take Rostov, seize the Maikop oil fields and push forward to Stalingrad on the Volga, thus severing Stalin’s last link with the Caucasus. When Rundstedt tried to explain to Hitler that this meant an advance of more than four hundred miles beyond the Dnieper, with his left flank dangerously exposed, the Supreme Commander told him that the Russians in the south were now incapable of offering serious resistance. Rundstedt, who says that he “laughed aloud” at such ridiculous orders, was soon to find the contrary.
The German drive along the old road which Napoleon had taken to Moscow at first rolled along with all the fury of a typhoon. In the first fortnight of October, in what later Blumentritt called a “textbook battle,” the Germans encircled two Soviet armies between Vyazma and Bryansk and claimed to have taken 650,000 prisoners along with 5,000 guns and 1,200 tanks. By October 20 German armored spearheads were within forty miles of Moscow and the Soviet ministries and foreign embassies were hastily evacuating to Kuibyshev on the Volga. Even the sober Halder, who had fallen off his horse and broken a collarbone and was temporarily hospitalized, now believed that with bold leadership and favorable weather Moscow could be taken before the severe Russian winter set in.
The fall rains, however, had commenced. Rasputitza, the period of mud, set in. The great army, moving on wheels, was slowed down and often forced to halt. Tanks had to be withdrawn from battle to pull guns and ammunition trucks out of the mire. Chains and couplings for this job were lacking and bundles of rope had to be dropped by Luftwaffe transport planes which were badly needed for lifting other military supplies. The rains began in mid-October and, as Guderian later remembered, “the next few weeks were dominated by the mud.” General Blumentritt, chief of staff of Field Marshal von Kluge’s Fourth Army, which was in the thick of the battle for Moscow, has vividly described the predicament.
The infantryman slithers in the mud, while many teams of horses are needed to drag each gun forward. All wheeled vehicles sink up to their axles in the slime. Even tractors can only move with great difficulty. A large portion of our heavy artillery was soon stuck fast … The strain that all this caused our already exhausted troops can perhaps be imagined.10
For the first time there crept into the diary of Halder and the reports of Guderian, Blumentritt and other German generals signs of doubt and then of despair. It spread to the lower officers and the troops in the field—or perhaps it stemmed from them. “And now, when Moscow was already almost in sight,” Blumentritt recalled, “the mood both of commanders and troops began to change. Enemy resistance stiffened and the fighting became more bitter … Many of our companies were reduced to a mere sixty or seventy men.” There was a shortage of serviceable artillery and tanks. “Winter,” he says, “was about to begin, but there was no sign of winter clothing … Far behind the front the first partisan units were beginning to make their presence felt in the vast forests and swamps. Supply columns were frequently ambushed …”
Now, Blumentritt remembered, the ghosts of the Grand Army, which had taken this same road to Moscow, and the memory of Napoleon’s fate began to haunt the dreams of the Nazi conquerors. The German generals began to read, or reread, Caulaincourt’s grim account of the French conqueror’s disastrous winter in Russia in 1812.
Far to the south, where the weather was a little warmer but the rain and the mud were just as bad, things were not going well either. Kleist’s tanks had entered Rostov at the mouth of the Don on November 21 amidst much fanfare from Dr. Goebbels’ propaganda band that the “gateway to the Caucasus” had been opened. It did not remain open very long. Both Kleist and Rundstedt realized that Rostov could not be held. Five days later the Russians retook it and the Germans, attacked on both the northern and southern flanks, were in headlong retreat back fifty miles to the Mius River where Kleist and Rundstedt had wished in the first place to establish a winter line.
The retreat from Rostov is another little turning point in the history of the Third Reich. Here was the first time that any Nazi army had ever suffered a major setback. “Our misfortunes began with Rostov,” Guderian afterward commented; “that was the writing on the wall.” It cost Field Marshal von Rundstedt, the senior officer in the German Army, his command. As he was retreating to the Mius:
Suddenly an order came to me [he subsequently told Allied interrogators] from the Fuehrer: “Remain where you are, and retreat no further.” I immediately wired back: “It is madness to attempt to hold. In the first place the troops cannot do it and in the second place if they do not retreat they will be destroyed. I repeat that this order be rescinded or that you find someone else.” That same night the Fuehrer’s reply arrived: “I am acceding to your request. Please give up your command.”
“I then,” said Rundstedt, “went home.”*11
This mania for ordering distant troops to stand fast no matter what their peril perhaps saved the German Army from complete collapse in the shattering months ahead, though many generals dispute it, but it was to lead to Stalingrad and other disasters and to help seal Hitler’s fate.
Heavy snows and subzero temperatures came early that winter in Russia. Guderian noted the first snow on the night of October 6–7, just as the drive on Moscow was being resumed. It reminded him to ask headquarters again for winter clothing, especially for heavy boots and heavy wool socks. On October 12 he recorded the snow as still falling. On November 3 came the first cold wave, the thermometer dropping below the freezing point and continuing to fall. By the seventh Guderian was reporting the first “severe cases of frostbite” in his ranks and on the thirteenth that the temperature had fallen to 8 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit, and that the lack of winter clothing “was becoming increasingly felt.” The bitter cold affected guns and machines as well as men.
Ice was causing a lot of trouble [Guderian wrote] since the calks for the tank tracks had not yet arrived. The cold made the telescopic sights useless. In order to start the engines of the tanks fires had to be lit beneath them. Fuel was freezing on occasions and the oil became viscous … Each regiment [of the 112th Infantry Division] had already lost some 500 men from frostbite. As a result of the cold the machine guns were no longer able to fire and our 37-mm. antitank guns had proved ineffective against the [Russian] T-34 tank.12
“The result,” says Guderian, “was a panic which reached as far back as Bogorodsk. This was the first time that such a thing had occurred during the Russian campaign, and it was a warning that the combat ability of our infantry was at an end.”
But not only of the infantry. On November 21 Halder scribbled in his diary that Guderian had telephoned to say that his panzer troops “had reached their end.” This tough, aggressive tank commander admits that on this very day he decided to visit the commander of Army Group Center,Bock, and request that the orders he had received be changed, since he “could see no way of carrying them out.” He was in a deep mood of depression, writing on the same day:
The icy cold, the lack of shelter, the shortage of clothing, the heavy losses of men and equipment, the wretched state of our fuel supplies—all this makes the duties of a commander a misery, and the longer it goes on the more I am crushed by the enormous responsibility I have to bear.13
In retrospect Guderian added:
Only he who saw the endless expanse of Russian snow during this winter of our misery and felt the icy wind that blew across it, burying in snow every object in its path; who drove for hour after hour through that no-man’s land only at last to find too thin shelter with insufficiently clothed, half-starved men; and who also saw by contrast the well-fed, warmly clad and fresh Siberians, fully equipped for winter fighting … can truly judge the events which now occurred.14
Those events may now be briefly narrated, but not without first stressing one point: terrible as the Russian winter was and granted that the Soviet troops were naturally better prepared for it than the German, the main factor in what is now to be set down was not the weather but the fierce fighting of the Red Army troops and their indomitable will not to give up. The diary of Halder and the reports of the field commanders, which constantly express amazement at the extent and severity of Russian attacks and counterattacks and despair at the German setbacks and losses, are proof of That. The Nazi generals could not understand why the Russians, considering the nature of their tyrannical regime and the disastrous effects of the first German blows, did not collapse, as had the French and so many others with less excuse.
“With amazement and disappointment,” Blumentritt wrote, “we discovered in late October and early November that the beaten Russians seemed quite unaware that as a military force they had almost ceased to exist.” Guderian tells of meeting an old retired Czarist general at Orel on the road to Moscow.
“If only you had come twenty years ago [he told the panzer General], we should have welcomed you with open arms. But now it’s too late. We were just beginning to get on our feet, and now you arrive and throw us back twenty years so that we will have to start from the beginning all over again. Now we are fighting for Russia and in that cause we are all united.”15
Yet, as November approached its end amidst fresh blizzards and continued subzero temperatures, Moscow seemed within grasp to Hitler and most of his generals. North, south and west of the capital German armies had reached points within twenty to thirty miles of their goal. To Hitler poring over the map at his headquarters far off in East Prussia the last stretch seemed no distance at all. His armies had advanced five hundred miles; they had only twenty to thirty miles to go. “One final heave,” he told Jodl in mid-November, “and we shall triumph.” On the telephone to Halder on November 22, Field Marshal von Bock, directing Army Group Center in its final push for Moscow, compared the situation to the Battle of the Marne, “where the last battalion thrown in decided the battle.” Despite increased enemy resistance Bock told the General Staff Chief he believed “everything was attainable.” By the last day of November he was literally throwing in his last battalion. The final all-out attack on the heart of the Soviet Union was set for the next day, December 1, 1941.
It stumbled on a steely resistance. The greatest tank force ever concentrated on one front: General Hoepner’s Fourth Tank Group and General Hermann Hoth’s Third Tank Group just north of Moscow and driving south, Guderian’s Second Panzer Army just to the south of the capital and pushing north from Tula, Kluge’s great Fourth Army in the middle and fighting its way due east through the forests that surrounded the city—on this formidable array were pinned Hitler’s high hopes. By December 2 a reconnaissance battalion of the 258th Infantry Division had penetrated to Khimki, a suburb of Moscow, within sight of the spires of the Kremlin, but was driven out the next morning by a few Russian tanks and a motley force of hastily mobilized workers from the city’s factories. This was the nearest the German troops ever got to Moscow; it was their first and last glimpse of the Kremlin.
Already on the evening of December 1, Bock, who was now suffering severe stomach cramps, had telephoned Halder to say that he could no longer “operate” with his weakened troops. The General Staff Chief had tried to cheer him on. “One must try,” he said, “to bring the enemy down by a last expenditure of force. If that proves impossible then we will have to draw new conclusions.” The next day Halder jotted in his diary: “Enemy resistance has reached its peak.” On the following day, December 3, Bock was again on the phone to the Chief of the General Staff, who noted his message in his diary:
Spearheads of the Fourth Army again pulled back because the flanks could not come forward … The moment must be faced when the strength of our troops is at an end.
When Bock spoke for the first time of going over to the defensive Halder tried to remind him that “the best defense was to stick to the attack.”
It was easier said than done, in view of the Russians and the weather. The next day, December 4, Guderian, whose Second Panzer Army had been halted in its attempt to take Moscow from the south, reported that the thermometer had fallen to 31 degrees below zero. The next day it dropped another five degrees. His tanks, he said, were “almost immobilized” and he was threatened on his flanks and in the rear north of Tula.
December 5 was the critical day. Everywhere along the 200-mile semicircular front around Moscow the Germans had been stopped. By evening Guderian was notifying Bock that he was not only stopped but must pull back, and Bock was telephoning Halder that “his strength was at an end,” and Brauchitsch was telling his Chief of the General Staff in despair that he was quitting as Commander in Chief of the Army. It was a dark and bitter day for the German generals.
This was the first time [Guderian later wrote] that I had to take a decision of this sort, and none was more difficult … Our attack on Moscow had broken down. All the sacrifices and endurance of our brave troops had been in vain. We had suffered a grievous defeat.16
At Kluge’s Fourth Army headquarters, Blumentritt, the chief of staff, realized that the turning point had been reached. Recalling it later, he wrote: “Our hopes of knocking Russia out of the war in 1941 had been dashed at the very last minute.”
The next day, December 6, General Georgi Zhukov, who had replaced Marshal Timoshenko as commander of the central front but six weeks before, struck. On the 200-mile front before Moscow he unleashed seven armies and two cavalry corps—100 divisions in all—consisting of troops that were either fresh or battle-tried and were equipped and trained to fight in the bitter cold and the deep snow. The blow which this relatively unknown general now delivered with such a formidable force of infantry, artillery, tanks, cavalry and planes, which Hitler had not faintly suspected existed, was so sudden and so shattering that the German Army and the Third Reich never fully recovered from it. For a few weeks during the rest of that cold and bitter December and on into January it seemed that the beaten and retreating German armies, their front continually pierced by Soviet breakthroughs, might disintegrate and perish in the Russian snows, as had Napoleon’s Grand Army just 130 years before. At several crucial moments it came very close to that. Perhaps it was Hitler’s granite will and determination and certainly it was the fortitude of the German soldier that saved the armies of the Third Reich from a complete debacle.
But the failure was great. The Red armies had been crippled but not destroyed. Moscow had not been taken, nor Leningrad nor Stalingrad nor the oil fields of the Caucasus; and the lifelines to Britain and America, to the north and to the south, remained open. For the first time in more than two years of unbroken military victories the armies of Hitler were retreating before a superior force.
That was not all. The failure was greater than that. Halder realized this, at least later. “The myth of the invincibility of the German Army,” he wrote, “was broken.” There would be more German victories in Russia when another summer came around, but they could never restore the myth. December 6, 1941, then, is another turning point in the short history of the Third Reich and one of the most fateful ones. Hitler’s power had reached its zenith; from now on it was to decline, sapped by the growing counterblows of the nations against which he had chosen to make aggressive war.
A drastic shake-up in the German High Command and among the field commanders now took place. As the armies fell back over the icy roads and snowy fields before the Soviet counteroffensive, the heads of the German generals began to roll. Rundstedt, as we have already seen, was relieved of command of the southern armies because he had been forced to retreat from Rostov. Field Marshal von Bock’s stomach pains became worse with the setbacks in December and he was replaced on December 18 by Field Marshal von Kluge, whose battered Fourth Army was being pushed back, forever, from the vicinity of Moscow. Even the dashing General Guderian, the originator of massive armored warfare which had so revolutionized modern battle, was cashiered—on Christmas Day—for ordering a retreat without permission from above. General Hoepner, an equally brilliant tank commander, whose Fourth Armored Group had come within sight of Moscow on the north and then been pushed back, was abruptly dismissed by Hitler on the same grounds, stripped of his rank and forbidden to wear a uniform. General Hans Count von Sponeck, who had received the Ritterkreuz for leading the airborne landings at The Hague the year before, received a severer chastisement for pulling back one division of his corps in the Crimea on December 29 after Russian troops had landed by sea behind him. He was not only summarily stripped of his rank but imprisoned, court-martialed and, at the insistence of Hitler, sentenced to death.*
Even the obsequious Keitel was in trouble with the Supreme Commander. Even he had enough sense to see during the first days of December that a general withdrawal around Moscow was necessary in order to avert disaster. But when he got up enough courage to say so to Hitler the latter turned on him and gave him a tongue-lashing, shouting that he was a “blockhead.” Jodl found the unhappy OKW Chief a little later sitting at a desk writing out his resignation, a revolver at one side. Jodl quietly removed the weapon and persuaded Keitel—apparently without too much difficulty—to stay on and to continue to swallow the Fuehrer’s insults, which he did, with amazing endurance, to the very end.17
The strain of leading an army which could not always win under a Supreme Commander who insisted that it always do had brought about renewed heart attacks for Field Marshal von Brauchitsch, and by the time Zhukov’s counteroffensive began he was determined to step down as Commander in Chief. He returned to headquarters from a trip to the receding front on December 15 and Halder found him “very beaten down.” “Brauchitsch no longer sees any way out,” Halder noted in his diary, “for the rescue of the Army from its desperate position.” The head of the Army was at the end of his rope. He had asked Hitler on December 7 to relieve him and he renewed the request on December 17. It was formally granted two days later. What the Fuehrer really thought of the man he himself had named to head the Army he told to Goebbels three months later.
The Fuehrer spoke of him [Brauchitsch] only in terms of contempt [Goebbels wrote in his diary on March 20, 1942]. A vain, cowardly wretch … and a nincompoop.18
To his cronies Hitler said of Brauchitsch, “He’s no soldier; he’s a man of straw. If Brauchitsch had remained at his post only for another few weeks, things would have ended in catastrophe.”19
There was some speculation in Army circles as to who would succeed Brauchitsch, but it was as wide of the mark as the speculation years before as to who would succeed Hindenburg. On December 19 Hitler called in Halder and informed him that he himself was taking over as Commander in Chief of the Army. Halder could stay on as Chief of the General Staff if he wanted to—and he wanted to. But from now on, Hitler made it clear, he was personally running the Army, as he ran almost everything else in Germany.
This little matter of operational command [Hitler told him] is something anyone can do. The task of the Commander in Chief of the Army is to train the Army in a National Socialist way. I know of no general who could do that, as I want it done. Consequently, I’ve decided to take over command of the Army myself.20
Hitler’s triumph over the Prussian officer corps was thus completed. The former Vienna vagabond and ex-corporal was now head of state, Minister of War, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and Commander in Chief of the Army. The generals, as Halder complained—in his diary—were now merely postmen purveying Hitler’s orders based on Hitler’s singular conception of strategy.
Actually the megalomaniacal dictator soon would make himself something even greater, legalizing a power never before held by any man—emperor, king or president—in the experience of the German Reichs. On April 26, 1942, he had his rubber-stamp Reichstag pass a law which gave him absolute power of life and death over every German and simply suspended any laws which might stand in the way of this. The words of the law have to be read to be believed.
… In the present war, in which the German people are faced with a struggle for their existence or their annihilation, the Fuehrer must have all the rights postulated by him which serve to further or achieve victory. Therefore—without being bound by existing legal regulations—in his capacity as Leader of the nation, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Head of Government and supreme executive chief, as Supreme Justice and Leader of the Party—the Fuehrer must be in a position to force with all means at his disposal every German, if necessary, whether he be common soldier or officer, low or high official or judge, leading or subordinate official of the party, worker or employer—to fulfill his duties. In case of violation of these duties, the Fuehrer is entitled after conscientious examination, regardless of so-called well-deserved rights, to mete out due punishment and to remove the offender from his post, rank and position without introducing prescribed procedures.21
Truly Adolf Hitler had become not only the Leader of Germany but the Law. Not even in medieval times nor further back in the barbarous tribal days had any German arrogated such tyrannical power, nominal and legal as well as actual, to himself.
But even without this added authority, Hitler was absolute master of the Army, of which he had now assumed direct command. Ruthlessly he moved that bitter winter to stem the retreat of his beaten armies and to save them from the fate of Napoleon’s troops along the same frozen, snowbound roads back from Moscow. He forbade any further withdrawals. The German generals have long debated the merits of his stubborn stand—whether it saved the troops from complete disaster or whether it compounded the inevitable heavy losses. Most of the commanders have contended that if they had been given freedom to pull back when their position became untenable they could have saved many men and much equipment and been in a better position to re-form and even counterattack. As it was, whole divisions were frequently overrun or surrounded and cut to pieces when a timely withdrawal would have saved them.
And yet some of the generals later reluctantly admitted that Hitler’s iron will in insisting that the armies stand and fight was his greatest accomplishment of the war in that it probably did save his armies from completely disintegrating in the snow. This view is best summed up by GeneralBlumentritt.
Hitler’s fanatical order that the troops must hold fast regardless in every position and in the most impossible circumstances was undoubtedly correct. Hitler realized instinctively that any retreat across the snow and ice must, within a few days, lead to the dissolution of the front and that if this happened the Wehrmacht would suffer the same fate that had befallen the Grande Armée … The withdrawal could only be carried out across the open country since the roads and tracks were blocked with snow. After a few nights this would prove too much for the troops, who would simply lie down and die wherever they found themselves. There were no prepared positions in the rear into which they could be withdrawn, nor any sort of line to which they could hold on.22
General von Tippelskirch, a corps commander, agreed.
It was Hitler’s one great achievement. At that critical moment the troops were remembering what they had heard about Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, and living under the shadow of it. If they had once begun a retreat, it might have turned into a panic flight.23
There was panic in the German Army, not only at the front but far in the rear at headquarters, and it is graphically recorded in Halder’s diary. “Very difficult day!” he begins his journal on Christmas Day, 1941, and thereafter into the new year he repeats the words at the head of many a day’s entry as he describes each fresh Russian breakthrough and the serious situation of the various armies.
December 29. Another critical day! … Dramatic long-distance telephone talk between Fuehrer and Kluge. Fuehrer forbids further withdrawal of northern wing of 4th Army. Very bad crisis by 9th Army where apparently the commanders have lost their heads. At noon an excited call from Kluge. 9th Army wishes to withdraw behind Rzhev …
January 2, 1942. A day of wild fighting! … Grave crisis by 4th and 9th Armies … Russian breakthrough north of Maloyaroslavets tears the front wide open and it’s difficult to see at the moment how front can be restored … This situation leads Kluge to demand withdrawal of sagging front. Very stormy argument with Fuehrer, who however holds to his stand: The front will remain where it is regardless of consequences …
January 3. The situation has become more critical as the result of the breakthrough between Maloyaroslavets and Borovsk. Kuebler* and Bock very excited and demand withdrawal on the north front, which is crumbling. Again a dramatic scene by Fuehrer, who doubts courage of generals to make hard decisions. But troops simply don’t hold their ground when it’s 30 below zero. Fuehrer orders: He will personally decide if any more withdrawals necessary….
Not the Fuehrer but the Russian Army was by now deciding such matters. Hitler could force the German troops to stand fast and die, but he could no more stop the Soviet advance than King Canute could prevent the tides from coming in. At one moment of panic some of the High Command officers suggested that perhaps the situation could be retrieved by the employment of poison gas. “Colonel Ochsner tries to talk me into beginning gas warfare against the Russians,” Halder noted in his diary on January 7. Perhaps it was too cold. At any rate nothing came of the suggestion.
January 8 was “a very critical day,” as Halder noted in his journal. “The breakthrough at Sukhinichi [southwest of Moscow] is becoming unbearable for Kluge. He is consequently insisting on withdrawing the 4th Army front.” All day long the Field Marshal was on the phone to Hitler and Halder insisting on it. Finally, in the evening the Fuehrer reluctantly consented. Kluge was given permission to withdraw “step by step in order to protect his communications.”
Step by step and sometimes more rapidly throughout that grim winter the German armies, which had planned to celebrate Christmas in Moscow, were driven back or forced by Russian encirclements and breakthroughs to retreat. By the end of February they found themselves from 75 to 200 miles from the capital. By the end of that freezing month Halder was noting in his diary the cost in men of the misfired Russian adventure. Total losses up to February 28, he wrote down, were 1,005,636, or 31 per cent of his entire force. Of these 202,251 had been killed, 725,642 wounded and 46,511 were missing. (Casualties from frostbite were 112,627.) This did not include the heavy losses among the Hungarians, Rumanians and Italians in Russia.
With the coming of the spring thaws a lull came over the long front and Hitler and Halder began making plans for bringing up fresh troops and more tanks and guns to resume the offensive—at least on part of the front. Never again would they have the strength to attack all along the vast battle line. The bitter winter’s toll and above all Zhukov’s counteroffensive doomed that hope.
But Hitler, we now know, had realized long before that his gamble of conquering Russia—not only in six months but ever—had failed. In a diary entry of November 19, 1941, General Halder notes a long “lecture” of the Fuehrer to several officers of the High Command. Though his armies are only a few miles from Moscow and still driving hard to capture it, Hitler has abandoned hopes of striking Russia down this year and has already turned his thoughts to next year. Halder jotted down the Leader’s ideas.
Goals for next year. First of all the Caucasus. Objective: Russia’s southern borders. Time: March to April. In the north after the close of this year’s campaign, Vologda or Gorki,* but only at the end of May.
Further goals for next year must remain open. They will depend on the capacity of our railroads. The question of later building an “East Wall” also remains open.
No East Wall would be necessary if the Soviet Union were to be destroyed. Halder seems to have mulled over that as he listened to the Supreme Commander go on.
On the whole [he concluded] one gets the impression that Hitler recognizes now that neither side can destroy the other and that this will lead to peace negotiations.
This must have been a rude awakening for the Nazi conqueror who six weeks before in Berlin had made a broadcast declaring “without any reservation” that Russia had been “struck down and would never rise again.” His plans had been wrecked, his hopes doomed. They were further dashed a fortnight later, on December 6, when his troops began to be beaten back from the suburbs of Moscow.
The next day, Sunday, December 7, 1941, an event occurred on the other side of the round earth that transformed the European war, which he had so lightly provoked, into a world war, which, though he could not know it, would seal his fate and that of the Third Reich. Japanese bombers attacked Pearl Harbor. The next day† Hitler hurried back by train to Berlin from his headquarters at Wolfsschanze. He had made a solemn secret promise to Japan and the time had come to keep it—or break it.
* Emphasis in the original.
† A few weeks later Goering told Ciano, “This year between twenty and thirty million persons will die of hunger in Russia. Perhaps it is well that it should be so, for certain nations must be decimated. But even if it were not, nothing can be done about it. It is obvious that if humanity is condemned to die of hunger, the last to die will be our two peoples … In the camps for Russian prisoners they have begun to eat each other.” (Ciano’s Diplomatic Papers, pp. 464–65.)
‡ Not as premature, however, as the warnings of the American General Staff, which in July had confidentially informed American editors and Washington correspondents that the collapse of the Soviet Union was only a matter of a few weeks. It is not surprising that the declarations of Hitler and Dr. Dietrich early in October 1941 were widely believed in the United States and Britain as well as in Germany and elsewhere.
* Halder, in his diary of August 24, gives quite a different version. He accuses Guderian of “irresponsibly” changing his mind after seeing Hitler and muses how useless it is to try to change a man’s character. If he suffered, as Guderian alleges, “a complete nervous collapse,” his pedantic diary notes that day indicate that he quickly recovered.
* “Groesste Aufregung (greatest excitement) by the Fuehrer,” Halder noted in his diary on November 30 in describing Rundstedt’s retreat to the Mius and Hitler’s dismissal of the Field Marshal. “The Fuehrer calls in Brauchitsch and hurls reproaches and abuse at him.” Halder had begun his diary that day by noting the figures of German casualties up to November 26. “Total losses of the Eastern armies (not counting the sick), 743,112 officers and men—23 per cent of the entire force of 3.2 million.”
On December 1, Halder recorded the replacement of Rundstedt by Reichenau, who still commanded the Sixth Army, which he had led in France and which had been having a hard time of it to the north of Kleist’s armored divisions, which were retreating from Rostov.
“Reichenau phones the Fuehrer,” Halder wrote, “and asks permission to withdraw tonight to the Mius line. Permission is given. So we are exactly where we were yesterday. But time and strength have been sacrificed and Rundstedt lost.
“The health of Brauchitsch,” he added, “as the result of the continuing excitement is again causing anxiety.” On November 10 Halder had recorded that the Army chief had suffered a severe heart attack.
* He was not executed until after the July 1944 plot against Hitler, in which he was in no way involved.
* General Kuebler had replaced Kluge on December 26 as commander of the Fourth Army when the latter took over Army Group Center. Though a tough soldier, he stood the strain only three weeks and then was relieved by General Heinrici.
* Vologda, 300 miles northeast of Moscow, controlled the railway to Archangel. Gorki is 300 miles due east of the capital.
† Hitler’s movements and whereabouts are noted in his daily calendar book, which is among the captured documents.