Retreat From Moscow: A New History of Germany’s Winter Campaign, 1941-1942

Retreat From Moscow: A New History of Germany's Winter Campaign, 1941-1942 Book Cover Retreat From Moscow: A New History of Germany's Winter Campaign, 1941-1942
David Stahel
Military History
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

This is a pretty good new book about the Russian counter-offensive at Moscow in late 1941 and early 1942.  The conventional wisdom for this campaign is generally described as some kind of Russian victory--depending on the author's perspective, either a minor, pyrrhic victory, or a decisive, turning-point type victory.  Conventional wisdom also notes that one of major factors in this campaign--guaranteeing German defeat (or victory) was Hitler's "Stand Fast" order prohibiting any German retreats as the Russians poured through gaps in the line.  Finally, conventional wisdom claims that the Germans suffered debilitating losses during these winter battles, often due to the frigid weather more than the Soviets.

In this book, Stahel seeks to overturn all of these kernels of conventional wisdom.    First, he challenges the notion that the counter-offensive was a Soviet victory at all, pointing out that the offensive fell well short of Stalin's ambitious goals, and that the chief effect of the Russian attacks was the disproportionate slaughter of massive amounts of Soviet troops for no gain--troops that could (and should) have been either concentrated into a smaller number of decisive thrusts or husbanded for use in the spring/summer.  While this is no doubt true, Stahel generally tries to prove the point by anecdotal evidence--reports of individual skirmishes, letters from home, unit diaries, etc., and I don't recall seeing overall comparative casualty figures in the book.

For the second point, while Stahel is highly critical of Hitler's interference in professional officers' judgments about how to conduct the fighting in Russia (in one remarkable incident, he describes Hitler's demand to know exactly how many machine guns were deployed in the cemetery of a particular Russian town), he claims that previous histories have ignored the extent to which Hitler's Stand Fast order was ignored by units on the ground.  The author claims that while many of these orders and withdrawals were not documented, careful analysis of unit diaries, letters, etc. show that many officers successfully covered up their own limited withdrawals and those of their subordinates.  Unlike most other historians, Stahel also credits General Kluge, the then-commander of Army Group Center, with a masterful ability to push his subordinates to hold their ground, while incessantly seeking permission from Hitler for withdrawal from critical sectors.  Generally his arguments and evidence on these points is convincing.

Finally, the author argues that German losses during the Russian counter-offensive were much lower than generally believed, and certainly far lower than Soviet losses.  He also asserts that much of the heavy equipment and vehicles which were lost were junk that were near the end of their service lives in any event, so that overall German losses during this campaign were not nearly as crippling as generally believed.

Overall a very interesting, and perhaps slightly provocative book, but the author's contentions seem to be generally backed up by solid, if not compelling evidence. I've rated the book as four stars rather than five because of the almost exclusive focus on the German perspective and the author's heavy reliance on anecdotal evidence such as letters; while such letters are certainly interesting and of evidentiary value, ultimately given the number of soldiers and letters on the eastern front, one could probably find letters supporting almost any point of view.