Operation Barbarossa

Nazi Germany’s War in the East, 1941-1945, Christian Hartmann, Oxford.

“The ultimate confrontation between the two great totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century.” That’s how Christian Hartmann — a historian at the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich  — describes the “gargantuan conflict” that raged between Germany and the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1945. For Hartmann, it must have been a monumental challenge to distill the events of those four years down to a mere 166 pages. “In the case of a war as large and extreme as the German-Soviet one, merely sketching an overview of the military operations presents a challenge,” notes the author.

Yet Hartmann does a more-than-admirable job of providing an overview of the war, explaining why the conflict occurred, why it was so brutal, and why the Germans were defeated. Among those reasons: 

- The sheer size of the country the Germen Wehrmacht (armed forces) invaded: 21.8 million square kilometers. 
- The climate: Truly horrific winter weather, for which the Germans were ill-prepared.
- The enormous Russian army (5.3 million men by 1941 and 12 million more available as reserves), as well as the manpower at Russia’s disposal: A population of 194 million people.

There’s also the matter of military leadership. “As Commanders-in-Chief, both Hitler and, to an even greater extent, Stalin, were complete amateurs,” begins Hartmann. But “there was one telling difference between the two sides, in that the Soviet Union’s resources meant it could allow itself many more command errors than the German Reich.”

While there are other more exhaustive accounts of the war in the East — including the recent “Operation Barbarossa: The German Invasion of Soviet Russia,” by Robert Kirchubel (Osprey) — Hartmann’s book has the advantage of being concise and easy-to-absorb. And by the author’s reckoning, his subject matter should be treated as more than just a historical curiosity.

“Since 1945 there has been nothing in the Western hemisphere of a scale comparable to that of the Second World War,” he concludes, referring in particular to the war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. “For us to ignore or even forget that, the world would have to witness an event of comparable proportions. And may God forbid it.”