Chronicle: Is Putin repeating the bad mistakes of Hitler’s Stalingrad? | Opinion
After the Royal Air Force blew its Luftwaffe out of British skies in 1940, Adolf Hitler made a very bad decision. He decided to invade Russia, dragging Germany into one of the most devastating defeats in military history.
Many books and essays have been written about the Battle of Stalingrad. I looked at several sources after watching a documentary on Stalingrad: “The Stalingrad Catastrophe (historyplace.com, 2010); “Why did Germany lose the Battle of Stalingrad? (dailyhistory.org); Anthony Beever, “Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943” (Penguin Books, 1998). These documents have led me to conclude that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, at least so far, seems to replicate not only Hitler’s savagery, but also his strategic and tactical errors during his invasion of the Russia. And for similar reasons.
“The Stalingrad Disaster” describes how the Germans initially routed a surprise Soviet army, massacring hundreds of thousands of POWs and Soviet Jews in their eastern rampage. But in the winter of 1941-42, Soviet forces severely maimed the German army in the Battle of Moscow. Undeterred, Hitler mounted “Operation Blue” in the spring of 1942 to seize both the rich oil fields of the Caucasus and the region’s railway junction and industrial center at Stalingrad.
The same essay also describes how Hitler underestimated the Russian military. General Georgy Zhukov repeatedly outmaneuvered the German enemy with his “combat retreats”, luring the Germans deeper into Russia, extending their supply lines, leaving them short of ammunition, winter clothing and food. When Zhukov surrounded the Sixth Army at Stalingrad, he administered relentless artillery fire and infantry assaults until German General Paulus challenged Hitler and surrendered.
The Battle of Stalingrad was Germany’s second successive disaster. According to the documentary “Catastrophe”: “Of an original force of 285,000 troops comprising the Sixth Army, 165,000 had died at Stalingrad, while some 29,000 wounded had been airlifted. The 91,000 survivors, including 24 generals and 2 500 officers, hobbled in the snow to begin years of captivity in Russian POW camps in the freezing cold of Siberia, only 5,000 would survive the ordeal and return home.
Germany’s defeat was the result of Hitler’s pride and incompetence. Specifically:
From the start, according to the documentary “Catastrophe”, “the problem was a shortage of labour. There were simply not enough men of service age in Germany to compensate for the losses already suffered in Russia. Hitler therefore supplemented the German divisions with poorly trained, ill-prepared and unreliable allies from Spain, Italy, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.
* He had an exaggerated sense of his skills.
Believing he was smarter than his generals, Hitler assumed full command of all operations. General Alfred Jodl, Germany’s chief of operations, said of Hitler: “He didn’t care to hear other points of view. If they were even suggested, he would burst into fits of furious agitation.
General Jodl also said that Hitler possessed an “almost mystical belief in his own infallibility” and ordered his generals that Stalingrad would fall “unless they followed his plan”. Whenever senior officers criticized his plans, Hitler fired them and chose docile subordinates.
Jodl also criticized Hitler’s odd work habits. He stayed awake until around 4 a.m. every day, then slept until noon, “when he was holding his first military conference of the day, needing to keep up to date with the events of the morning,” according to the documentary. Hitler was often distracted from ongoing campaigns “by unrelated political and Nazi events”. For example, he “attended the annual commemoration of the (1923) Beer Hall Putsch,” just as American troops landed in North Africa.
German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein observed even deeper flaws: First, “he was a man who saw combat only in terms of the utmost brutality. His way of thinking corresponded more to a mental image of enemy masses bleeding to death before our lines than to the conception of a subtle swordsman who knows how to step back from time to time to rush towards the decisive thrust.
Hitler also lacked compassion for his own soldiers. Manstein said he “never felt like his heart belonged to the fighting troops. Casualties, as far as he was concerned, were just numbers that reduced combat power. Even with more than 20,000 casualties a day from wounds, starvation, suicide, and sub-freezing temperatures, Hitler refused to send the soldiers necessary winter gear, food, and ammunition; yet he insisted they fight until they died, according to the documentary “Catastrophe.”
* Hitler confused his subordinates with contradictory and inconsistent plans.
After deciding to ask the Fourth Panzer Army to help the First Panzer seize the Caucasus oil fields, he redirected the Fourth Panzer Army, too late, to Stalingrad once he realized that he had left her defenseless. Here, as elsewhere, he overruled expert field commanders who believed “it was unwise to split his forces into enemy territory”, always preferring to “pick out a target and attack it with overwhelming force”, according to dailyhistory. org.
* Hitler also engaged in “magical thinking”.
Hitler believed from the start that Russia would crumble in four weeks like “a rotten structure.” Towards the end, the German army was surrounded and faced certain annihilation. Hitler not only refused to acknowledge this truth, but he also demanded that such terrible news be kept from the German people.
Days before General Paulus’ surrender on February 2, 1943, Hitler announced to the German people that Stalingrad “was ninety percent occupied and would fall any moment,” according to Beever’s book.
When “an enthusiastic, nationalistic young officer…wearing his Knight’s Cross” volunteered to inform Hitler at the 11th hour of the Sixth Army’s impending defeat, Hitler pointed to his council of war and said he would not could be so. The officer later wrote: “Hitler had lost touch with reality. He lived in a world of maps and flags… It was the end of all my illusions about Hitler. I was convinced that we would now lose the war.
Beever writes that one of Hitler’s sacked generals called Hitler’s leadership at Stalingrad “the erratic and obsessive meddling of an amateur”. This interference was responsible for one of the worst defeats in military history – a cautionary tale for any nation under the sway of a vain and incompetent warlord like Putin.
Although Putin has yet to suffer Hitler’s humiliating defeat, and maybe not, the extent of his hubris suggests that such a defeat is not out of the question.
However, it would be a supreme irony to see Putin defeated in Ukraine, in the rubble of Mariupol, because he did not retain the lesson learned by Hitler in the rubble of Stalingrad.