After the RAF blasted his Luftwaffe from Britain’s skies in 1940, Hitler decided to
invade Russia. In June 1941, Hitler led Germany into one of the most catastrophic
defeats in military history.
The Germans initially routed a surprised Soviet army, slaughtering hundreds of
thousands of prisoners of war and Soviet Jews (e.g. Babi Yar) on their Eastern
rampage. But during the winter of ’41-’42, the Soviet forces badly mauled the
German army at the Battle of Moscow. Undeterred, Hitler mounted “Operation
Blue” in the spring of ’42 to seize both the rich oil fields in the Caucasus and the
region’s rail junction and industrial center in Stalingrad.
But Hitler underestimated the Russian army. General Georgy Zhukov, in
particular, outsmarted the German enemy with his “fighting retreats” luring
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 unrelenting artillery fire and infantry assaults until
German General Paulus defied Hitler and surrendered.
The Battle of Stalingrad was Germany’s second successive catastrophe. “Out of an
original force of 285,000 soldiers comprising the Sixth Army, 165,000 had died in
Stalingrad, while some 29,000 wounded had been airlifted out. The 91,000
survivors, including 24 generals and 2,500 officers, hobbled off in the snow to
begin years of captivity in Russian POW camps in bitter cold Siberia. Only 5,000
would survive the ordeal and return home.”
The main reason for Germany’s defeat was Hitler’s incompetent leadership:
- He was not prepared.
From the outset, “the problem was a shortage of manpower. There simply
were not enough available men of military age in Germany to make up for the
losses already experienced in Russia.” Hitler therefore supplemented German
divisions with ill-trained, ill-prepared and unreliable allies from Spain, Italy,
Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. 4
- He had an exaggerated sense of his skills.
Believing he knew more than his generals, Hitler took total command of all
operations. General Alfred Jodl, German Chief of Operations, said of Hitler:
“He did not care to hear other points of view. If they were even hinted at he
would break into short-tempered fits of enraged agitation.”
Jodl also stated that Hitler possessed an “almost mystical conviction of his own
infallibility” and instructed his generals that Stalingrad would fall “only if they
followed his plan.” Whenever senior officers criticized his plans, Hitler fired
them and chose pliant subordinates. 5
- He lacked focus.
“Hitler had odd work habits, staying up till 4 a.m. or so every day, then
sleeping till noon, when he would hold his first military conference of the day,
needing to catch up on the morning’s events.”(Jodl)
Hitler was often distracted from the ongoing campaigns “by unrelated political
and Nazi party events.” For example, he was “attending the annual
commemoration of the  Beer Hall Putsch,” at the very moment
American troops were landing in North Africa. 6
- He lacked empathy.
Hitler lacked compassion for his own soldiers. German Field Marshall Manstein
said: “I never had the feeling that his heart belonged to the fighting troops.
Losses, as far as he was concerned, were merely figures which reduced fighting
power.” Even with casualties exceeding 20,000 per day from wounds,
starvation, suicide, and sub-freezing temperatures, Hitler refused to send
soldiers the necessary winter gear, food, and ammunition; yet, he insisted they
fight to their death. 7
- He confused subordinates with contradictory and incoherent plans.
After deciding to have the Fourth Panzer Army aid the First Panzer in seizing
the Caucasus oil fields, he redirected the Fourth Panzer Army too late back to
Stalingrad once he realized he had left it undefended. Here, as elsewhere, he
overruled expert field commanders who believed “it was reckless to divide
one’s forces in enemy territory,” preferring always “pick one target and attack
it with overwhelming force.” 8
- He engaged in “magical thinking.”
Hitler believed from the outset that Russia would collapse in four weeks like “a
rotten structure.” Near the end, with Stalingrad encircled and facing defeat,
Hitler not only refused to acknowledge this truth, he demanded that such
news be shielded from the German people. Days before General Paulus’
surrender (2 February 1943), Hitler announced to the German people that
Stalingrad “was ninety percent occupied and would fall at any moment.”
When “an enthusiastic and nationalistic young officer… wearing his Knight’s
Cross” volunteered to inform Hitler at the 11 th hour of Sixth Army’s imminent
defeat, Hitler pointed to his war board and said it could not 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.”
One of Hitler’s dismissed generals referred to Hitler’s leadership in Stalingrad as
“the erratic and obsessive meddling of an amateur.” 11 This meddling was
responsible for one of the worst defeats in military history — a cautionary tale for
any nation in the thrall of a vain and incompetent wartime leader.