Monday, 2 November 2009
What is the difference between Stalin and Hitler as military leaders? Well, that's simple enough: Hitler thought he was a genius and acted like a genius, with disastrous consequences for the whole German war effort. Stalin thought he was a genius and acted like a politician, giving the initiative to the people who had the talent and skill to realise his strategic vision. Stalin learned from his mistakes; Hitler did not learn from Stalin's mistakes.
Possibly the worst order that any leader can give to his generals is 'hold on at all costs and do not retreat.' All this means is that the enemy finds a weak point, advances and then destroys the defending forces in battles of envelopment, precisely what happened in western Russia in the summer and autumn of 1941. But by 1942 Stalin had learned the advantages of trading territory for military advantage.
The Second Battle of Kharkov was to be the last truly serious Russian defeat in the war. Thereafter, with minimal interference from Stalin, soldiers like Georgy Zhukov and Ivan Koniev were allowed sufficient inititive to bring their formidable talents to bear. Hitler, in contrast, began to interfere with military operations, down to the most basic levels of command, robbing the German army of the flexibility and initiative which had long been the chief mark of its battle-field effectiveness. The German Sixth Army could have withdrawn from Stalingrad even after it was surrounded in November 1942; but Hitler insisted that it remain. A new pattern of fight and defend at all costs was established, leading to the destruction of one German force after the other as the Russians pushed westwards in 1943-44.
There are other factors to consider in the respective war-time roles of Stalin and Hitler. As a leader Stalin was an inspiration, and his decision to remain in Moscow, and be seen in public, as the Germans advanced towards the city, had an incalculable effect on Russian morale. W. Averell Harriman, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow from 1943-45, was to say of him "I'd like to emphasize my great admiration for Stalin the national leader in an emergency, one of those historical occasions when one man made such a difference." Contrast that with Hitler who, as the German emergency deepened, sunk further and further into the background, leaving Goebbels to fill the gap in national leadership. For all his faults Stalin was an asset for the Russian war effort; for all his talents Hitler was a disaster for the German