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Kiev 1941

Hitler's Battle for Supremacy in the East, by David Stahel, Cambridge University Press, 2012, Hardcover, $35.00, 486 pages
Review Type: 

Reviewed by Steven D. Mercatante*

David Stahel's Kiev 1941 follows his 2009 work Operation Barbarossa and Germany's Defeat in the East as the second book in a trilogy ostensibly taking a fresh look at the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union. Had Stahel conducted a comprehensive analysis of the military operations near Kiev during the summer of 1941 this reviewer would have much to recommend. Regrettably however Stahel's Kiev 1941, much as its predecessor, all too often rehashes stale Cold War era ideas deterministically advancing the theory that the German invasion was doomed if for no other reason than the Soviet Union's sheer brute force strength and numerical advantages over Axis forces. Even worse, Stahel's effort is no mere doubling down on what is becoming a discredited conventional wisdom. The book's primary arguments revolve around the truly outlying idea that the Red Army had essentially defeated the Wehrmacht within six weeks of the beginning of what would become the greatest land war in human history.

The fact that Stahel advances such a theory completely contrary to what the historical record evinces is part and parcel of a researcher who though well versed in German sources seems to have not taken more than a passing glance at the Russian archives. Unfortunately, and perhaps understandably so given the same theories are advanced in his previous book, this omission seems to be a feature rather than a bug. That said, Kiev 1941 is well-written and, for general readers, it commendably portrays the state of the German eastern army (Ostheer) during the summer of 1941. Regardless, the reader is frequently distracted by digressions into aspects of the war outside the purview of what the book's title suggests. This is however only part of the larger problems afflicting not only this work, but also his previous volume.

For instance, given the author's attempt to address larger strategic issues there are some shockingly big holes in the defense of his thesis that the Soviet Union had effectively defeated the German invasion as early as August of 1941. Instead, and all too often, Stahel meanders through a somewhat convoluted strategic discussion of the war that fails to prove his points. For instance, and in rejoinder, the historical record amply demonstrates that near Kiev Germany not only engineered perhaps the greatest victory in the history of land warfare, but thereafter its overextended and rapidly weakening armies nevertheless still almost took Moscow. The following year the Wehrmacht nearly seized the primary sources of Soviet economic strength and just about took Stalingrad - doing all of this in spite of the fact that the 1942 era Ostheer lacked the fearsome power projection capabilities it wielded in 1941. We also know that to defeat Germany it cost the Soviet Union well over 20 million dead and immense material losses that, for example, included well over three of every four tanks Soviet factories churned out during the war. Moreover, the Red Army needed the economic backing provided by the world's greatest industrial powers working in concert to bolster a Soviet war effort that still took nearly four years to grind out a final victory. What's more, Germany waged war in far from an ideal manner; with a civilian and military leadership that made some of the Second World War's worst mistakes and yet still drove the Soviet Union to the brink of defeat. Stahel never adequately responds to any of these facts. What he does is to treat the summer of 1941 in isolation, substituting a snapshot in time for a measured look at the enormously complex variables impacting the outcome of a war fought between two of the world's first military superpowers. To his credit he provides us with a detailed look at the state of the Ostheer late in the summer of 1941. But in isolation this hardly supports his apparent belief that a war as big and multifaceted as the German-Soviet war can be reduced to a balance sheet exercise finding that the side possessing the greatest resources was of course the winner.

Examples demonstrating the falsity of such ideas are replete through not just history, but abound within the Second World War itself. One need look no further than the relatively weak German navy's lead role in conquering Norway early in 1940 in spite of having to fight against two of the greatest naval powers in the world. One could also look to the 1940 German defeat of France against combined Allied armies outnumbering German forces in most every category, and also able to draw on vast global economic resources provided by two of the world's largest empires. Conversely, during the 1940 Battle of Britain the outnumbered British Royal Air Force defeated the Luftwaffe's attempt to forge air supremacy over England. In 1942 the Red Army successfully defended Stalingrad even though the city's under resourced defenders fought for over two months against a more well-equipped and supported foe. In the spring of 1944 the Red Army's massive invasion of Romania quickly turned into a colossal failure. In this final example of a by no means all-inclusive list weak Axis armies defeated two entire Soviet Fronts. One of these, Ivan Konev's 2nd Ukrainian Front, featured half of the Red Army's Tank Armies along with numerous other powerful armored formations. In spite of its imposing order of battle Konev's Front still couldn't best the worn down German 8th Army and Romanian 4th Army. One could reel off numerous other examples from the war, no less than from the entirety of military history. Regardless, and as this reviewer has shown in his own work quantitative strength is far from the determinative factor in producing military success. And yet here we have Kiev 1941 not only arguing the contrary, but doing so almost in spite of the historical record.

Kiev 1941 follows the all too brief discussion of events near Kiev, and the author's inadequate defense of the thesis motivating both of his books to date, by devoting a significant amount of time to the set-up for Operation Typhoon; all while again somewhat randomly ranging across the entirety of the German Eastern Front. As such, Kiev 1941 lamentably finishes by leaving the reader with a sinking feeling regarding how much of Stahel's soon to be released third book, supposedly about Operation Typhoon, will actually cover what the title implies. More importantly, in committing the same sins as its otherwise superior antecedent, Kiev 1941 once again leaves the reader to wonder when we will see the more muscular and reasoned defense of the author's ideas that his primary thesis demands.


*Steven D. Mercatante is the author of Why Germany Nearly Won: A New History of the Second World War in Europe. He is also the founder and editor in chief of The Globe at War, a website focused on exploring World War II that has established the author as a respected authority on the subject. He is a corporate tax attorney and is the founder and principal of TIR Consulting LLC; a consulting firm specializing in international, federal, state and local tax compliance. Mercatante received his BA from the University of Michigan, a teaching certificate in history and political science from Eastern Michigan University, and a JD from Michigan State University College of Law, graduating with a concentration in international law. He is a member of the State Bar of Michigan. In addition to Why Germany Nearly Won his published works include many other writings in the legal and historical fields; for instance in 2008 his journal article The Deregulation of Usury Ceilings, Rise of Easy Credit and Increasing Consumer Debt was published in the South Dakota Law Review.

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