Richard Evans: Review of David Stahel's "Kiev 1941: Hitler's Battle for Supremacy in the East"

Roundup: Books

Richard Evans is Regius Professor of History and President of Wolfson College at Cambridge University, and author of The Third Reich at War, published by the Penguin Press in 2009.

...The story of the Battle of Kiev has been told many times, but seldom in such detail as it is in David Stahel’s book. Relying mainly on German sources, he brings new evidence to bear on the conflict with the official war diaries of German divisions, as well as making good use of published editions of the private field-post letters and diaries of German soldiers of all ranks. This is emphatically a military history, replete with complex (and not always easily decipherable) maps of troop movements and dispositions, technical terms, titles and abbreviations, and full names for all the troop units involved. Some of this impedes readability (particularly irritating is the use of Roman numerals, as in “the XXXXVII Panzer Corps”), but overall Stahel conveys extremely complex military action with exemplary clarity.

Unlike more traditional military historians, Stahel is acutely aware of the wider context of the action, from Hitler’s overall aims for the war to the importance of logistics for the outcome; from the murderous racism and ruthless pragmatism with which the German leaders, military as well as political, condemned so many Soviet civilians to starve and so many Jewish inhabitants to terrible death, to the postwar disputes among historians and retired generals over Hitler’s strategy; from the conditions troops had to face in the Ukrainian and Russian autumn and winter to the basic realities of the economic foundations of the German war effort, foundations which, he argues convincingly if not entirely originally, were starting to crumble almost from the moment when Operation Barbarossa was launched.

His realism refreshingly prevents him from following traditional military historians’ often overly positive and simplistic descriptions of “great” generals and “decisive” battles. Kiev, as he correctly notes, was only part of a much wider conflict, and the impression, so enthusiastically conveyed by Hitler and his Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, that it was a decisive step in the conquest of the Soviet Union, was in reality no more than an illusion. Privately, Goebbels was far less optimistic than he told his tame press to be about the outcome of the war. Already in mid-September 1941, on the eve of the capture of Kiev, he was noting in his diary that the war in the east was not going to end as quickly as Hitler had supposed. The blitzkrieg had turned into a war of resources. “After it has become known that the campaign in the east cannot be brought to an end in the time we had actually expected to do so, the people should also be made aware of what difficulties we confront … It now depends on who can endure this the longest ... Indeed, we are now fighting with our backs against the wall.”...

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