In Praise of Lesser Evils
Can Realism Repair Foreign Policy?
FUTURE historians may well consider the present Russo-German war as the last phase in the liquidation of all the blunders in international politics during the last thirty years. It will be a blessing if this liquidation leads Europe back to healthy conditions, to a peaceful rivalry among the members of the family of European nations. That is possible, of course, only if no new nationalism results from the present war, and this to some extent depends, in turn, upon modesty of aim on the part of those who are responsible for the peace. For there is no final political and economic remedy for all the evils resulting from the vagaries and mysteries of human nature. Anyone who plans a peace on the assumption that by certain legal or economic provisions he can eliminate the effects of human error and passion belongs to the same line as the Marxists and the totalitarian prophets.
It is strange that Russia and Germany should now have made war against each other twice within thirty years. For except for a short intermezzo at the time of the Seven Years' War there had never, until 1914, been a war between them. From time immemorial they have needed one another economically. There is hardly another instance of such close economic symbiosis. It began in the Middle Ages, when the Hanseatic towns produced the first signs of wealth in Russia and brought her into the orbit of European trade. The same towns introduced their own democratic conceptions (the first seen in Europe after the fall of ancient democracy) to western Russia. Riga, Mitau, Reval, even Kiev, had the same bill of rights as Soest, Lubeck and Magdeburg. Even later on, in the period of increasing nationalism, there was no necessity for a conflict so long as Germany could coördinate Russian and Austrian aims in the Balkans or, failing that, refused to support Austria-Hungary in any conflict with Russia resulting from the Dual Monarchy's expansionist tendencies towards the southeast. This was the essence of the policy of the Holy Alliance. With Bismarck it was a dogma.
The traditional tie of personal friendship between the monarchs of the two countries helped for many decades to give Europe peace and increasing prosperity. At several critical moments the Tsars and the Prussian Kings or German Emperors stood bravely together in the face of passionate antagonism between their nations. But this friendship did not override or exclude the raisons d'état which naturally predominated in both countries and which were a sound corrective of the personal ties between the monarchs. Otherwise unrealistic sentimentality might have prevailed. And that is the worst thing, next to the prevalence of mass ideologies, which are another form of sentimentality, that can happen for a stable peace and a durable balance of power.
It was sentimentality which led the two countries into opposite camps in the nineties and before the last war. Through a desire to be nice, not only to each other but to everybody else, the monarchs got in the habit of giving pledges which were bound to disrupt old friendships and traditions and to end in the distrust and fear which so generally are the major causes of war. William II meant well when he was so eager to assure Nicholas II of German neutrality in the Russo-Japanese War, and when he tried to induce the Tsar to make an early peace with Japan. That did not prevent the Tsar from going further in his pledges to England and France. The Emperor's interest in the construction of the Baghdad Railway was again sentimental. Because of it, Germany was credited by England and Russia with seeking a footing on the Bosphorus. In fact, Germany had no business at the Bosphorus. Von der Goltz opportunely advised the Turks to renounce their rule in Europe and to concentrate upon building up their power in Asia. That would have been realistic. The course actually followed led to a close military understanding between Russia and England. Again, it was because of a sentimental attachment to Francis Joseph that William II allowed Bismarck's reinsurance treaty with Russia to lapse and supported Austria in her policy after Sarajevo, even though he was skeptical of Austria's method of meeting the crisis.
But none of this proves that Germany and Russia normally cannot live together in peace and economic collaboration. Belief that they can had a large influence in shaping the policy of Bethmann-Hollweg and Count von Hertling. Even Ludendorff agreed with them that it could hardly be in the permanent interest of Germany to take any territory from Russia. But none of the three could make up his mind to pronounce the simple formula that Germany was not interested in territorial changes east of her 1914 boundaries. The historian cannot decide whether such a pronouncement before the Kerensky revolution might have saved the Tsar and led to a separate peace between Russia and Germany.
The German High Command and Foreign Office were strangely misinformed about internal conditions in Russia during the Kerensky period. The Brussilov offensive frightened them. Expecting prolonged fighting, they thought it necessary to adopt the same methods as the Allies, namely to combat one revolution by another. However, a second revolution might have occurred even if Germany had not allowed Lenin to travel through the country on his way back to Russia.
The only man who felt, instinctively at least, what might come of the Bolshevik régime in Russia was General Hoffmann.[i] He was the first who had to deal with it personally. Until his death in 1927 he held firmly to the conclusion that Europe could not be consolidated again unless the Bolsheviks were overthrown and stable conditions restored in Russia through a crusade, without annexationist aims, by the Western Powers and Germany. He was too realistic not to be aware that the problem could be solved only by a united Europe and not by Germany alone. Nor is it likely that he would have consented, later on, to the tearing up of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk so far as it concerned Poland and the Baltic States. It is worth remembering that Brest-Litovsk laid the foundation of these states. Neither General Hoffmann nor any other delegate of the Central Powers, however, can have been fully aware at that moment that he had to steer between Scylla and Charybdis, between the fateful alternatives with which Russo-German relations will always be confronted.
The Germans may in fact conquer Russia, but they cannot stay there. Apart from developing its economic organization, they do not know what to do in that country. Presumably Hitler thinks himself the first to know. But the game is not yet over. Germany can never have any objection against an independent Poland, Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia as such, provided they do not develop expansionist tendencies towards the west such as Poland and Lithuania in fact developed immediately after the Armistice at Compiègne in 1918. Germany has to realize, however, that to support any of these countries actively is to incur the enmity and hate of Russia. She also has to remember that the Poles may make a military alliance with the French in order to keep her down. On the other hand, if out of fear of incurring Russian enmity she refrains from fostering Poland's tendency to expand to the east, Poland will try to expand to the west. When she does so, Russia will seize her opportunity and take back from Poland what she has lost.
These fateful alternatives explain the vacillation of German policy in Eastern Europe during the last war, and afterwards as well. The existence in Russia of a Bolshevik régime, ready to make its next ideological expansion towards Poland and Germany and to establish similar régimes there, induced Germany in the last war to opt definitely for the independence of Poland and the Baltic States. Count von Hertling steered in that direction. On September 1, 1918, Prince Radziwill received from the German Government the following conditions: (1) the guarantee of the integrity of the Polish Kingdom; (2) the possibility of Polish expansion to the east, that is, Podolia, Ukraina, Volhynia; (3) certain guarantees for Polish minorities living in Germany. In case Poland was united with Austria, German territory was to be extended, at Ludendorff's request, to the strategic Warthe-Narev line.[ii] A few days later Prince Radziwill announced that in addition the free election of a King of Poland had been guaranteed by the German Government. Still a few days later there was a new Regency Council in existence asking for all the territories which had belonged to Poland in the course of her history, even for a few decades. Some months later Germany, under dictate, had to permit the passage of the Haller Legion, ostensibly going to defend Poland's eastern frontiers against the Bolsheviks, but actually, at the same time, to consolidate Poland's conquest from Germany of the Corridor and Poznania. Two years later a part of Upper Silesia as well was lost to the Poles.
What followed could have been expected. While a violent struggle against Bolshevism was still raging inside Germany, the German Government concluded the Rapallo Treaty with Russia. This was the precursor of the Treaty of Neutrality, the so-called Treaty of Berlin, signed between Germany and Russia in 1926 for five years. Thus Germany was back on the Russian side. This time no sentimentality was at work, but a grim raison d'état. The Rapallo Treaty provoked violent reactions, not only abroad. Few people in Germany except the Communists approved of it. They could not understand the new European diplomacy -- making a pact with a country whose government was trying to control you by stirring up revolution within your borders. From that time three schools of thought with regard to the Russian problem prevailed in Germany. One hated Communism, but for political and economic reasons supported Russo-German friendship. Another, the most outspoken representative of which for many years was General Hoffmann, wanted to rid Russia of Bolshevism and reëstablish a constitutional government by means of a European military expedition.[iii] The members of the third school of thought hoped one day to achieve the peaceful revision of the treaties and were willing to come to an understanding with Poland without any arrière-pensée of aggressiveness against Russia. There are indications that the influence of this school prevailed in German foreign policy between 1930 and 1933.
These were confused years of constant change. Russia, fearing the negotiation of a Franco-Japanese understanding and that Poland would join it, was first eager to negotiate a non-aggression pact with Poland. Poland made ratification of this pact dependent on the conclusion of a similar pact between Russia and her own ally, Rumania. But as Rumania would not conclude such a pact before the renunciation of Russian claims to Bessarabia, an unacceptable condition, the plan did not materialize. On the other hand, the German Government refused to renew the Treaty of Berlin for another five years, but only for two years, after which it could be allowed to lapse. The door was thus left open to a closer understanding, eventually, between Germany and Poland. This policy did not have the approval of a part of the German Army. Nevertheless, it was not given up by Papen, Schleicher or Hitler, although Papen is said to have suggested in vague phrases at Lausanne something like a warped Hoffmann plan.
Hitler, of course, was always in favor of Hoffmann's ideas in the form in which he heard about them from Ludendorff. When he came into office the renewal of the Treaty of Berlin with Russia had not yet been ratified. It was said that the German Army forced him to ratify it in 1933. But certainly he did so with a mental reservation. Soon he had recourse to further mental reservations. Pilsudski's threats to invade Germany made it necessary to sign a ten-year treaty guaranteeing the German-Polish status quo. Thus Hitler had to accept what seemed to the Germans a double defeat. They did not understand, of course, nor did the other nations of Europe understand, that the mental reservations were more important than the published documents.
There must have been reservations in Stalin's mind, as well, when he ratified the renewed Treaty of Berlin and consented to repay in the next four years $500,000,000 which had been advanced in medium-term credits for goods delivered to Russia by German industrialists, under a guarantee by the German Government. Here began the incredible comedy of Stalin and Hitler fighting each other with propaganda in all parts of the world, each using the other as a bogey with which to win over or consolidate public opinion, while their armies maintained the friendly relations established in 1924. Foreign governments were sometimes bewildered, sometimes amused spectators. Sometimes they even fell asleep over the endless monotony of the dialogue. Indeed they must have been asleep when they missed the gradual transition on the stage from comedy to tragedy.
The foresight of General Hoffmann and of many others was now fully demonstrated. Stability in Europe was impossible while Russia followed a double policy -- an official policy of making treaties and observing them fairly correctly, and an unofficial one of trying to stir up civil war in countries with which her own diplomatic relations were correct and even "friendly." In the early twenties this duplicity had been recognized very widely in Germany, and the younger generation had wanted to imitate the Russian practice. They failed. But totalitarian régimes have the ability to present a double face without arousing public opinion. Mussolini was either unable or unwilling to follow the policy on a large scale. The Bolsheviks and the Nazis, however, followed it to the ultimate conclusion; they succeeded in bringing every country near them into active or latent civil war. They were even able to weaken or break the traditional nationalism of those countries by causing them to focus their political attention and passion exclusively upon a single antithesis -- Fascism versus Bolshevism. This of course did not prevent Hitler and Stalin from operating jointly from time to time for purely tactical reasons.
What thoughts will come into Stalin's mind when, perhaps from a new residence overlooking the flowing Volga, the stream dearest to all Russians, he remembers the days before the Nazis came into power? Will he then realize that his 1931 command to the German Communists to coöperate closely with the Nazis to prevent the Reichstag from functioning normally contributed more to Hitler's rise to power than anything else? Will he remember his instructions to the German Communists in 1932 to call irresponsible strikes, in conjunction with the Nazis, for the purpose of destroying the authority of the German trade unions? After the Nazis came into power, he must have realized that Communism was dead in Germany and that it would die wherever similar tactics were employed. Thus it was that he changed over to the policy of the front populaire. The first fields for experimentation were Spain and France.
Hitler, who had thus far confined himself to undermining the government of Austria, began almost immediately to make Nazism an "article of export," to use Mussolini's phrase. If any proof had been needed of Europe's mental weariness, it would have been provided by the fact that in all countries the local Communists and Fascists responded instantly to every command of their high priests abroad. Everywhere the secret agents of Stalin and Hitler denounced one another to the police. The fact contributed to the general bewilderment of governments and people. For the two were united for tactical purposes in their common fight against the moderate parties, against everyone who was sufficiently cool-headed and had enough common sense not to trust either of them. They also showed complete solidarity against exiles who had known Bolshevism and Nazism at first hand and thus were in a position to give timely warnings against the results of their joint tactic. Communist agents and writers published ostensibly anti-Nazi books which often contained information, actual or forged, discrediting the real opponents of the Nazi régime. Nazis posed as parlor Communists and talked wildly about Hitler's plans, regarding which they pretended (in order to mislead foreign governments) to have secret information. Stalin made a new constitution containing liberal clauses that purported to assure religious tolerance. Hitler posed as the defender of Catholicism in the fight against Bolshevism. Whether it will ever be possible to write an exhaustive history of this tortuous policy -- its precise aims, its connections with governments, its financing, and its effect upon European affairs -- is more than doubtful.
One thing is sure. This underground intrigue and agitation could not have had the effect it did if Europe, indeed the world, had not been languishing from a deep-seated moral disease ever since the last war. In every country the liberals who denounced Nazis and Communists violently did not have the courage to act openly, still less to risk their lives or their property. Some secretly supported Fascism because they could no longer stand constant insecurity. For security they were prepared to sacrifice their liberty. Patriotism everywhere was ground between the polar opposition of the two antagonistic extreme ideologies. General Hoffmann had been only too right in prophesying that if the Bolsheviks were permitted to rule Russia they would undermine all traditional moral standards in politics.
The dictators succeeded in making the world morbid. But each wanted to exploit the situation to establish his own domination. Each played for time. Despite much wild language used in public, each maintained, in actual political contact, a most correct attitude towards the other. In this game Stalin was favored by natural and geographical advantages. He calculated that Hitler, in order to harvest the fruits of his work underground, would first have to make annexationist moves which were bound to alienate some of the Great Powers. In this he was right. His whole program must have been controlled by one idea -- to let Hitler strike his expansionist blows and not to interfere with them except to make vague promises of help to the objects of the Nazi aggression -- help which he was neither able nor willing to give. Stalin was able to wait.
But Hitler had to act on a timetable. If he could not strike a decisive blow before 1941, other European Powers would slowly but surely carry their rearmament to a point at which he might no longer be able to take the ultimate risk. He had begun the rearmament of Germany with foreign support, and had then speeded it up at a rate possible only in totalitarian countries. He would reach the maximum of production at the end of 1940. For every system of rearmament reaches, after a while, an optimum. An opportunity ensues to continue production at that level. But later, for various reasons, many of them cumulative, production invariably slips down. This was bound to happen in Germany, whether or not war occurred, in 1941 -- that is to say, just at the moment when England and France would be nearing their optimum. Moreover, new tactical methods that promise great initial success cannot be kept secret forever, even under the rule of the Gestapo. Some day even the most unimaginative foreign general staff officer will understand and imitate them.
For Stalin the outlook was much more promising. He could, for a number of reasons, both increase the rate of production and sustain production over longer periods. He would very likely have reached the optimum in rearmament only in 1943. But that was dependent upon certain conditions. Since the medium-term credits guaranteed by the German Government and extended to Russia between 1930 and 1932 had to be used for the purchase of goods in Germany, Russia had become dependent on German industry for repairs and replacements in many industries contributing to armament production. That was one reason why Stalin repaid the credits punctually after Hitler came into power. Even in the subsequent years he supplied Germany with oil, alloys, and so on, in order to get the machinery and instruments necessary to maintain his own armament production in accordance with the third Five Year Plan.
On the other hand, for Stalin to be able to delay his own military action he had to assist Hitler to speed up German rearmament to an otherwise inconceivable tempo and then induce him to use up his forces in a conflagration from which, in the first phase at any rate, Stalin himself could stand aside. This was certainly an extremely clever calculation. It seemed in the spring of 1939 that it would prove correct. There can be no doubt that Hitler originally intended to strike against Poland in May or June of 1939, without first establishing a community of interest with Stalin at Poland's expense. Whether he was prevented from doing so by the Anglo-French guarantee to Poland, or whether the army's counsels of caution once again prevailed over his usual temerity, history can show only later.
To the uninitiated, the rôle played by experienced army leaders in the totalitarian countries remains a mystery. Between the Polish campaign and the Battle of France it did not seem that the German generals were in any sense optimistic. Indeed, the success in France must have surprised them. It is now apparent that they could not have continued their rapid advance even one week longer. General Groener's forecast that any rapid German advance in France would have to stop at the Loire because of the exhaustion of men and supplies is shown to have been well founded.[iv] But General Groener could not foresee, of course, the early collapse of the French politicians.
We may surmise with a certain degree of safety that after the British and French had given their guarantee to Poland the German Army was unwilling to risk the invasion of Poland without knowing what the Russian reaction would be. If army leaders are united among themselves, they may succeed, even in totalitarian countries, in postponing military actions or in altering their character. But the fate of Badoglio, Graziani, von Fritsch, Beck and some Russian generals proves that they cannot entirely prevent military adventures once the dictators have decided on them. They are paralyzed by the fear that in the moment of their country's greatest danger they will be replaced by others, more ambitious than able. Certain of Hitler's moves in the spring of 1939, however, cannot be explained except on the assumption of pressure by the German Army for an understanding with Russia about Poland. In any event it is unlikely that the German General Staff were eager for a campaign against Russia, partly because of their old intimate relations with the Russian Army, but even more because of reasons to be discussed later. To the generals, the simultaneous acceptance of fronts against Russia, Poland and the Western Powers must have seemed suicide. Hearing of the Anglo-French guarantees to Poland, Rumania and Greece, they may have concluded (like many other observers) that the Allies would never have given such guarantees unless they had already come to some understanding with Russia. Otherwise, the guarantees were bound to force Stalin onto Hitler's side.
Anyway, Stalin unexpectedly found himself in just the position for which he must have longed, that of being wooed by the Nazis as well as by the Allies. Had the Allies foregone giving guarantees to Poland and Rumania, but nevertheless mobilized fully as soon as Hitler invaded Poland, they would very likely have provoked a conflict between Stalin and Hitler. The guarantees which the Chamberlain and Daladier governments gave to Poland and Rumania precluded this possibility of turning the tables on the two dictators, without in the least helping the two unfortunate countries in question. The understanding between Hitler and Stalin over the partition of Poland left the Polish Army where it could do nothing but sacrifice itself valiantly for the blunders and vanity of Colonel Beck. To fight on two fronts was too much for it.
Did Stalin realize the consequences of his pact with Hitler? From 1936 until recently it was the fashion to think all European statesmen fools. Between 1929 and 1936, on the contrary, people had been willing to believe that every word of the empty resolutions heard at Geneva was the product of profound wisdom and constructive foresight. To be fair to Stalin, one must say that he quite possibly may have calculated that Germany would have to fight a long-drawn-out battle, perhaps indecisive, in the West. Thus he might have become, at the optimum of his own rearmament, the real master of Europe. On the other hand, if he had strategical imagination his mind may well have been filled with sombre apprehensions. The western frontiers he acquired from Hitler certainly provided him with an ideal base for an attack against Germany. But if the Nazis were to be the attackers, his new northwestern frontiers represented a Greek gift. Perhaps he realized this later, after the fall of France. If Molotov in the fall of 1940 had secured the further extension of Russian territory into Finland and Rumania which Hitler has said that he asked for, Russia's defensive position might have been somewhat bettered. With Moldavia as a base of operations, Stalin could have prevented Hitler from subduing Rumania. What is more, he would have had a chance to support Pan-Slavism in the Balkans and to exert pressure as far south as Saloniki. Hitler's position would thus have been rendered more precarious both strategically and as regards indispensable supplies, especially Rumanian oil. Hitler might even have lost the chance of later making a successful attack on Russia.
But in history calculations of the optimum of preparedness and of the best moment to strike have often led to dramatic explosions. In 1914 the German military machine was far from fully prepared for any war of more than ten months, while Russia had achieved her maximum possible preparedness and some Russian generals favored an immediate blow. So it has been again. In time of war or in a prewar period when one general staff makes inflexible calculations in years, months, and even weeks, others proceed to do likewise, and the unavoidable result is a sudden explosion. Cooler, farsighted considerations are ruled out; pressure from those obsessed by the rigid timetable increases from day to day, until in the end it becomes decisive over all other considerations and calculations, even those which have been cherished for years as the basis of long-range international policy.
We may assume that Stalin would have made any temporary concession with regard to supplies of oil, grain and other commodities vital to Hitler if for that price he could have bought the postponement of the German attack for only six weeks, until the middle of August. Then he might have saved the Ukraine harvest and his main armament industries, mobilized all possible reserves, and stopped Hitler in or behind the Stalin Line without catastrophic losses in men and material. But Hitler's timetable had made it imperative for him to strike at once if he wished to survive under the double threat of the constantly increasing forces of Russia and Britain, and, especially, since he had been forced to recognize the impossibility of coming to any agreement with Churchill. It was too late to carry out General Hoffmann's plan for setting the whole of Europe to fight against Bolshevism, not against the Russian people.
In spite of what has been reported in popular literature and in the newspapers, there can be no doubt that some, at least, of the most able German army leaders must have tried to persuade Hitler that Russia was not as easy a mark as France and, furthermore, that a war of two years in Russia would greatly diminish the chance of subduing England. Churchill would naturally ally himself with Stalin; and the time when Great Britain and the United States would reach their maximum in armament production was approaching with ominous speed. But perhaps the army leaders did not altogether relish the risk of an invasion of England, as may be concluded from the fact that no preparation for such an invasion existed when the Battle of France was over. What was said above about European statesmen is true, too, of the élite of general staff officers. They are not so stupid as Lloyd George and some of his followers used to suggest. General Wavell gave the best answer to amateur strategists in one of his famous Lees Knowles Lectures. As he explained very clearly, understanding of the problems of supply and of morale is as important to a great general staff officer as strategical imagination.
Nowhere are supply and transport of such vital importance as in Russia, and this is especially true in modern mechanized warfare. For big break-throughs, panzer divisions need a special type of terrain and at least good second-class roads in order to assemble and deploy in favorable positions. Swamps, impenetrable forests, and deep mud are their principal foes. After every long and rapid advance aerodromes have to be built. Without airplanes for reconnaissance and dive-bombing, panzer divisions cannot perform their function of operating independently far in advance of the rest of the army, as the cavalry of Frederick the Great and other military leaders before the nineteenth century used to do. All mechanical vehicles, in addition to being regularly repaired, must be thoroughly overhauled at least every two months. Last but not least, to be able to follow panzer divisions over immense areas, marching and fighting constantly, the infantry must have roads and a supply organization. Even today, and in Russia more than anywhere else, infantry is still the most important factor in winning a decisive victory. Popular opinion to the contrary is utterly mistaken.
Neither panzer divisions nor infantry can advance with safety more than eighty or a hundred miles beyond the last important railway depot. This fact was established in the last war. But in Russia this means waiting many days for the railways to be regauged in the standard width. It is true that during the last war General Groener planned and organized everything for the most efficient solution of these problems. He impressed the major importance of this precise task on a whole generation of officers. But the vastness of the area and its topography make the invasion of Russia a very dangerous risk under any conditions.
Popular judgment of the reasons for Napoleon's failure in 1812 is based on the same sort of contemporary literature and memoirs that we have seen published in such quantity since the Battle of France. Poor Clausewitz, who is now widely quoted but hardly ever read and largely misunderstood, tried in vain to defend Napoleon's genius and to explain the real reasons for his defeat. The destruction of Moscow and the catastrophe at the Berezina in the course of the retreat were merely accidental. Russia must be struck in such a way that she sues for peace quickly. There is only one other alternative -- to conquer her entirely. For Napoleon, the latter was not possible because of his lack of troops and the want of transportation facilities. To inflict a quick and decisive blow, again, there are only two possibilities. The one Napoleon chose -- the only one he was able to choose -- was to gamble. He hoped that by capturing Moscow and defeating the main Russian armies before Moscow he would induce the Tsar to open peace negotiations. In this hope he was deceived. The Russians did not know what to do, and so they did nothing. They did not play the game they would have played if they had possessed another Napoleon. Thus Napoleon's campaign ended in a débâcle, for to have remained in Moscow, even if the city had not been set aflame, would not have had any effect at all upon the outcome of the war.
The other possibility is to let the Russians move forward and then to defeat them decisively west of the Berezina and the Dnieper. Count Schlieffen laid this down as the principle of any operation against Russia. On this principle the victory of Tannenberg was achieved. But that was only a partial success. The only real opportunity to end Russian resistance -- had enough troops been available -- was in November 1914, when the so-called Hindenburg "rochade" was initiated. The German and Austrian troops retreated toward the crest of the Carpathian Mountains, Cracow and the Silesian frontier; at the same time a number of divisions were moved secretly by rail behind the lines from south to north, with the purpose of separating the main Russian forces from Warsaw and, by a sudden blow from the northwest, crushing them against the Carpathians. Hoffmann, von Willissen and other young general staff officers of about the same generation as the present German army group leaders, insisted that this great strategical manœuvre could succeed only if the German forces would temporarily abandon Silesia and retreat into the Bohemian-Silesian mountains. Thus ample space would be left between Warsaw and the rear of the Russian lines for a battle of "annihilation." But Hindenburg refused for sentimental reasons to evacuate Silesia, even temporarily. Thus there was no decision. The manœuvre was crowned only with one of the most glorious feats of military history, the battle of Brzeziny, which was due to the genius of a young general staff captain.[v] Another course would have been to roll up the two flanks of the Russian Army -- from the south either from Galicia or from Bukovina, and from the north between Grodno and Vilna -- and to press them against the Berezina and the Pripet marshes. But this manœuvre was carried out too cautiously and by sections, because General von Falkenhayn was unwilling to make up his mind to risk everything on a single stroke against Russia.
It is interesting to recall this last manœuvre today because it certainly was strongly present in the minds of the members of the German general staff responsible for the strategy of the present campaign. The fact is that the conditions of transportation and topography mentioned above do not permit many variations on the main strategical possibilities of a campaign against Russia. Especially with the new western frontiers as fixed in the Russo-German treaty of August 1939, the targets aimed at in the main lines of advance must be Leningrad, Moscow and Kiev. Napoleon's operations were based on this plan. So was the present campaign. In both cases the strongest thrust was in the center, in the direction Vilna-Smolensk-Moscow. This made tactical coöperation between the weaker Northern Army (under von Leeb) and the stronger Central Army (under von Bock) possible whenever necessary. The Northern Army, having achieved its primary task in clearing the Baltic States of Russian forces and bottling up the remaining Russian forces in the north in Leningrad, would be in a position to converge with the Central Army toward Moscow. The new frontiers of 1939 provided the best possible opportunities for the operations of these two armies.
The position of the Southern Army (under von Rundstedt) was very different. There Lwow and the extremely strong natural line of defense along the Grodek chain of lakes west of Lwow left only one chance of a frontal break-through, in the direction Vladimir Volinski-Lutsk-Novograd Volhynsk. The Stalin Line, with Kiev as a strong base behind it, runs along the Dniester and then through very easily defensible country in the direction of Zhitomir and Korosten. To make a flanking movement across the Pruth, and then across the Dniester against the Stalin Line, was hardly possible, because of the weakness of the German and Rumanian forces available for such a frontal attack. Even the minor Hungarian and Rumanian flanking attack through the Carpathian passes from the south against Lwow was at first unsuccessful because of heavy snowstorms (which, at the end of June, are a meteorological curiosity).
Rundstedt's Army therefore moved more slowly than the other two German Armies in the beginning. German reports say that he was met everywhere by Russian élite troops. The names of the rivers he crossed -- Stokhod, Stir, Gorin, Zlota Lipa, Strypa, Sereth, Zbrucz -- and of the towns he took -- Brody, Zloczow, Tarnopol, Buczacz -- do not mean very much to us in America. But the hearts of millions of Russian, Austrian, Hungarian and German mothers and widows must have ached again as the most gruesome and depressing memories of the last war were recalled to them.[vi]
There were only a few roads running in the direction of Rundstedt's general line of advance. The most important of them, from Lutsk through Rovno to Novograd Volhynsk, runs along the southern edge of the Pripet marshes through many swampy defiles. The only possibility, there, is for a frontal attack along narrow strips of land. We do not yet know much in detail about this fighting. But some of the Russian reports suggest most interesting and complicated tactical manœuvres behind the German lines by shifting tank forces. The main lines of Russian defense-in this sector were chosen in a way which conclusively demonstrates Tukhachevsky's great military qualities. Rundstedt was forced after many difficult sallies and break-throughs to wheel round to the southeast just under the guns of Kiev and of the Stalin Line at Korosten, and to carry through a very daring and difficult operation in order to annihilate a large part of Budenny's army west of the Dnieper. There is no precedent for the operations in this part of Russia. Dominating the Dnieper in the tenth week of the campaign, Rundstedt was for the first time in a position to coöperate strategically and tactically with the Central Army.
In the Center and in the North the situation was very different. The largest of the three German armies was Bock's Central Army, the smallest, Leeb's Northern Army. Their lines of advance were about the same as those followed by Napoleon and by the Germans during the last war. The gap between the upper Dvina and the upper Dnieper will always be the first objective in an attack on Moscow. The greatest opportunities are provided by a break-through paralleling the northern edge of the Pripet marshes; a second break-through from Grodno toward Baranovicze and Minsk; and a third double thrust from Vilna toward Minsk and Polotsk, this last supported with simultaneous pressure by the right wing of the Northern Army. This facilitates multiple panzer movements and the capture of large forces and opens the road to Moscow, particularly to panzer and motorized divisions. This is the terrain Ludendorff and Hoffmann considered most favorable for an attempt to drive the Russian armies against the Pripet and Berezina marshes and to roll up the whole Russian front from the rear. But Ludendorff and Hoffmann never had troops enough to carry out such enormous operations. They therefore exhausted the strength of their armies in attacks -- which could lead to no decisive success -- from the north against the line of the Narev instead of from Vilna against Minsk.
In the present war conditions have been much more favorable to the invaders. Germany's new frontiers made possible an attack from Vilna on the very first day of the campaign. In addition, the fact that bridges over the River Bug were not destroyed permitted Guderian's panzer army in seventeen days to rush through the Pripet marshes and through the Stalin Line toward Vyazma, 120 miles west of Moscow, destroying or capturing a number of Russian armies on the way. To judge from Russian reports, it was a continuous advance by day and night, with incessant fighting -- one of the most formidable battles of history.
The Russian dispositions in this sector were astonishing from more than one point of view. The capture of a large Russian force east of Bialystock, of a second large force in the neighborhood of Minsk, and the German report that reserve forces were found in the Stalin Line along the Berezina, are more than puzzling. The Russian armies that were destroyed between Bialystock and Minsk were much too big for armies de couverture. Due to the new frontiers, they were exposed, from the beginning of the campaign, to the gravest danger. This danger should have been made apparent to the Russians by the German insistence, in the summer of 1939, on getting the big forests near Augustovo, which are suitable to the concealment of very great forces. Were the large Russian forces placed as they were before the outbreak of war between Germany and Russia in order to deliver a preconceived attack? And did they at the beginning of the campaign retreat in accordance with a sudden change in strategy? If so, during the first four days of the campaign they found themselves in the most dangerous position which they could have occupied anywhere in Russia. The experience of the last war shows that the best line of Russian defense would have been either along the lower Dvina toward Dvinsk, and from there due south along the lakes and swamps around Lake Narocz through Minsk toward Bobruisk, or else along the Stalin Line. These lines could easily have been reënforced from the general reserve which was assembled around Moscow a few days before the outbreak of the war. After the encirclement of two army groups east of Bialystock and near Minsk, this reserve was very likely thrown into the battle around Smolensk, only to share the same fate a fortnight later. The two groups were sliced out of the long battle line by two panzer armies of Bock's, one in the north and one on the southern flank. Bock's northern panzer army, moving steadily east northeast, was constantly supported by the pressure of Leeb's only panzer army, moving north northeast through Dvinsk.
Here there was a real chance in the first days of the campaign that break-throughs followed by encircling movements might lead to the destruction of large Russian armies. In the south such a chance would have existed only if armies three or four times stronger had been available for a flanking movement across the Pruth and the Dniester. In the north there was no such chance, except at the end, after the Stalin Line had been broken at Ostrov between Dvinsk and Lake Peipus. Leeb's army, taking Kaunas and Dvinsk and smashing through the Stalin Line, defending itself on its right flank against strong and repeated Russian counter attacks from Velikie Luki, from the Valdai hills, from Novgorod and the lower course of the Volkhov, succeeded in bottling up what remained of the Russian Northern Army on the coast of Estonia and in Leningrad. This advance, less conspicuous than the successes of the other two German armies, was in fact most difficult and daring. After defeating a strong Russian tank army north of Kaunas, Leeb found himself on extremely difficult terrain for large panzer units. For a distance of 320 miles between the Dvina and Leningrad there is swampy country with large forests and numerous lakes, with very few small towns and villages and only two first-class roads. In fact, Leeb's forces advancing against Leningrad had for nearly 160 miles only one major and one second-class road. The whole venture was very risky, but Leeb's army had one advantage over the two other German armies -- the railways as far as the Dvina were standard gauge, so that supply trains could be run to Riga and Dvinsk immediately after the panzer divisions advanced. Possibly infantry forces, too, were carried by rail to the Dvina.
The opportunities for Leeb's and Bock's tactical and strategical successes, and particularly for the highly successful coöperation between their two armies all along the line Kaunas-Vilna-Polotsk-Nevel, were largely due to the fact that the Russians chose to make a strong stand in the territories just acquired by the 1939 treaty with Germany. If instead they had adopted "scorched earth" tactics in the beginning and had destroyed all railways, roads and bridges west of the line Dvina-Lake Narocz-Minsk-Pripet, they would have had time to bring all their reserves into the Stalin Line and might have held out there over many months. But they had learned nothing from the Allied mistakes made in the Low Countries more than a year before, when the French and British advanced halfway to meet the German onslaught and were caught in a most disadvantageous position.[vii]
In order to understand the gigantic battles west of the Dnieper-Smolensk-Leningrad line, one must look at a relief map which also includes the road and railway systems. The tremendous difficulty of the operations of both armies will be apparent at once. Three principal points will strike the eye.
First, the German general staff chose for their large encirclements the relatively few stretches of land -- almost all terminal moraines -- which are somewhat higher and drier than the country generally. These provide the only opportunities to deploy and utilize panzer divisions fully. Thus the battle of annihilation east of Bialystock was fought out on the dry sandy elevation around Volkovysk and Novogrodek; the next battle, on the same sort of terrain around Minsk, north of the Brest Litovsk-Smolensk railway; the third battle, on the elevated country around Smolensk. The fourth battle, by Rundstedt's and Bock's combined armies, northeast of Kiev only partly fits into this scheme. The two battles following at Bryansk and Vyazma are again perfect examples of the same strategy.
Second, the fact that large Russian forces were encircled so near the frontier evidently permitted parts of Bock's panzer armies to drive directly to the Stalin Line at Bobruisk-Mogilev and to smash through the Line while it was manned largely by reserve divisions and before the main reserve at Moscow was available for a counterstroke. Thus the main reserve was later caught in three big battles northeast of Kiev, at Bryansk, and at Vyazma. In this respect the Russian campaign differed utterly from the campaign in France, where, one may say with little exaggeration, all available troops were from the beginning in the battle front, although partially immobilized in the Maginot Line.
Third, the capture of Smolensk and the battle northeast of Kiev deprived the Russians of any possibility of using the northand-south railway lines, and thereafter any movement of the main reserve had to be via Moscow. The various strategical north-and-south railways in Poland, of such immense advantage to the Russians in the last war, were not available to them this time. This makes it clear why Ludendorff and Hoffmann, longing for the day when they might get troops enough from the west to deal a decisive blow to the Russian army, always bent their eyes on the lines of advance from Vilna to Minsk and Borissov and from Vilna to Polotsk.
The Russian soldiers fought well, as they have always done. They had enormous numerical superiority in men, tanks and aeroplanes over the Germans. But the Germans had the advantage of surprise. To counteract this advantage the leaders of an opposing army must possess great imaginative gifts of anticipation -- greater, in modern war, than were required in former wars. These gifts were not available on the Russian side. The ghosts of Tukhachevsky and the hundreds of able Russian general staff officers whom Stalin had shot four years before were fighting on the side of the Germans.
The question, as these lines are written, is whether the German Army annihilated or bottled up the bulk of the Russian active divisions and first-line reserves without suffering too great losses themselves. German losses of officers and pilots must have been enormous. These cannot easily be replaced. Other German losses, except as regards equipment and oil reserves, may be considered relatively low. Much of the flower of the Russian Army is lost. Moscow can resist for a considerable period, as it is not easily assailable except from the west and south. In the rest of the country, the German advance is bound to be slowed up by the weather and the roads. Cold is not in itself necessarily so disadvantageous to the Germans as sleet, mud and melting snow. There is a limit, however, to the German infantry's power of endurance, and to that of the millions of horses drawing baggage and light cannon. Furthermore, unless the Germans capture the oil output of the Caucasus their armies will run the risk of drawing too heavily on their oil reserves.
If Stalin does not make peace, the German Command must take the great problem of the vastness of Russian spaces into sober calculation. The Germans will have to destroy -- though they need not occupy -- the new industrial areas in the Ural region. That means another campaign in the spring. And the distance from Moscow to Sverdlovsk is two and one-half times that from the German frontier to Moscow. If there is anything in this campaign really unparalleled in history, it is the fighting advance of the German infantry. But the Volga and the Urals are still far ahead of them. So, at the time of writing, are the Caucasus Mountains. May it not be in the minds of the German general staff to stop again, as they stopped after each big battle of encirclement, and let the last available Russian reserves advance against them next May? In that way their achievements might be crowned with final success. The winter will be hard anyway for the German troops, and their life in destroyed towns and villages or in dug-outs on the vast Russian plains, without accustomed sanitary conditions, and separated by nearly a thousand miles from home, may affect them with a certain melancholy.
As to all this we can only guess. Only one thing seems clear. So far there has been no discussion of the independence of Ukraina or the Baltic States. The Lwow district has been reunited with the Government General of Poland. Russian Ukraina has been treated as Russian territory under occupation. There seem to be no Quisling governments in the Baltic States. Only Odessa has been promised to the Rumanians. From all this it is possible to draw one conclusion -- the Germans seem eager to avoid the mistakes they made in the last war of promising independence to the Baltic countries and to Ukraina and expansion eastward to the Poles. Thus they leave open an opportunity for peace with Russia without any mutilation of her borders. That might be arranged, but with another Russia than that of Stalin. Whether or not such another Russia may conceivably exist next year cannot be predicted by anybody living out of contact with the Russian masses. What effect will the military situation have on their mentality? Can the Bolshevist ideology survive such terrible losses? Is there any man left, in a country which has been under totalitarian rule for 25 years, to try to get rid of Stalin? History offers few if any parallels that would encourage us to frame intelligent answers to these questions.
[i] General Karl Adolf Maximilian Hoffmann was one of the greatest German general staff officers in the last war. It was he who conceived the Battle of Tannenberg, before Hindenburg and Ludendorff took over command in the East. He conducted the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk. His mother, incidentally, was descended from the du Buisson family. Like him, and like the great Moltke, nearly all the great German army leaders of the past hundred years, with the characteristic exception of Ludendorff, have had some Huguenot ancestry.
[ii] The Narev frontier was established by Hitler in 1939.
[iii] There was another general who shared General Hoffmann's ideas -- Marshal Foch.
[iv]Cf. "German Strategy: 1914 and 1940," by X, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, April 1941.
[v] The correctness of the younger German general staff officers who wished to sacrifice Silesia temporarily becomes clear as one reads the diary of the best of the observers on the Russian side. See Major-General Sir Alfred Knox, "With the Russian Army, 1914-1917," v. I, p. 214.
[vi] See the dramatic picture of this fighting given by General Sir Alfred Knox in "With the Russian Army, 1914-1917."
[vii] When the battles were over, the German General Staff must have felt only too pleased that Stalin's wishes with regard to the northwestern frontiers of Russia had been gratified in 1939.