The Battle for Moscow: How Russia Stopped Hitler's Military During World War II
So close and yet so far. By the beginning of December, the thermometer had dropped to 45 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. It's not true that the Germans were unaware of the Russian winter. But with limited supply capacity, priority was given to fuel and ammunition. Besides, who needs winter clothing if Moscow was supposed to be captured before General Winter struck?
Instead, it was the Soviets who struck. Stalin had been reassured by information from Richard Sorge, a German living in Japan but working for Soviet intelligence, that the Japanese would turn south to fight the Americans and British instead of north against Siberia. He felt able to transfer 18 elite Siberian divisions, well-trained and well-equipped for operating in harsh winter conditions, by rail to Moscow.
When the counter offensive began on December 5, the Soviet armies punched through an enemy more scarecrow than human. German weapons were frozen, German soldiers were frozen, and sometimes the soldiers froze to the weapons. The survivors could only watch helplessly as the attackers, warmly clad in fur-lined jackets and boots, and camouflaged in white snowsuits, emerged like ghosts through the mist and snow.
Now came one of those decision points that occur in every major battle. Some of Hitler's generals wanted to retreat to a line far from Moscow. But Hitler feared that a retreat would disintegrate into a panic-stricken rout that would bring the Red Army to the gates of Germany. He ordered his troops to hold their positions to the last man, a hedgehog defense of strong points that would be defended even when surrounded. Though Hitler fired some generals who disagreed, many German commanders later praised the decision as preventing a collapse like that suffered by Napoleon's Grande Armee in 1812.
The Germans were pushed back to Rzhev, 150 miles from Moscow. But their lines were still intact, and though battered, their armies were still ready to fight. And now it was Stalin's turn for overconfidence. The Soviets had also suffered grievously during the counteroffensive: their troops were inexperienced, their supply lines were strained by snow and mud, and they also suffered from the cold. Nonetheless, with dreams of reaching Berlin in his eyes, Stalin ordered his exhausted forces to continue attacking. The result was heavy losses in futile attacks. By February, the Germans even counterattacked, destroying several Soviet divisions.
What had been accomplished? Both sides had gambled and failed. German dreams of capturing Moscow and ending the War in the East had evaporated. Stalin's dreams of a grand counteroffensive that would kick the Germans out of the Soviet Union also faltered. The slaughterhouse that was the Eastern Front would continue into 1942, and then into 1945.
However, it was Hitler's gamble that proved fatal. 1941 and 1942 would be the last years that the Germans had the luxury of waging a one-front war. After that, the Americans and British would open Second Fronts with amphibious landings in Europe and around-the-clock bombing over the Third Reich. If Hitler was to win, it had to be before the Anglo-Americans mustered their strength, and before the Soviets reorganized their armies and harnessed their vast industrial potential.
Ironically, the catastrophe that Germany barely avoided at Moscow only led to catastrophes later on. Hitler may have been right in ordering his armies not to retreat. To the ex-corporal, resentful and suspicious of the German officer corps, this was evidence that he possessed more genius and nerve than the professional soldiers. Therefore Hitler would only listen to himself and never accept the advice of his generals to retreat, which meant the German armies at Stalingrad and Normandy held their positions until they were destroyed.
Would the capture of Moscow have altered the outcome of World War II? Losing their capital has often led nations to seek peace. Moscow was more than the administrative capital of the Soviet Union: it was also a vital rail hub and production center. There was also the symbolic value: totalitarian dictators, like Hitler and Stalin, crafted images of themselves as all-knowing leaders of their nations. Losing Moscow would certainly have dented popular confidence in Stalin. In fact, Stalin apparently did put out discreet peace feelers to Germany through Sweden, which Hitler ignored.
But the Russo-German War was no ordinary conflict fought over territory or resources. For Nazi Germany, it was a war of extermination and subjugation that would have killed the Russian people or reduced them to slavery. For the Soviet Union, it was a war of survival. What kind of peace would have been possible? There could be no escape through a peace treaty with Hitler.
The War in the East was a fight to the death, and neither capturing nor defending Moscow would change that. The Soviet Union would probably have fought on despite the loss of its capital.
Image: St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow. Wikimedia Commons/Valerii Tkachenko