Book Review

Kiev 1941: Hitler’s Battle for Supremacy in the East by David Stahel, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2012, 390 pages, $25.95.

Other than Gettysburg and the Little Big Horn, is any subject covered more ad nausem than 1941 on the Eastern Front? Many books are cranked out that are simply rehashed material. The current dean of Eastern Front writing is David Glantz, to whom the Soviets and then the Russian government have opened previously withheld archival material for his research. However, a fresh young writer, David Stahel, has written three books on the Eastern Front in short order, all of which deserve serious attention on the Armor leader’s bookshelf.

The Kiev Campaign of August-September 1941 is usually thought of simply in terms of the vast number of prisoners taken and the ineptitude of the Soviet forces marshaled against German GEN Heinz Guderian. Stahel’s book exposes that for a bit of convenient myth-making that serves the purposes of both the Wehrmacht and the Soviet regime. Up until Stahel’s book, it is arguable that there has been no proper study of this critical campaign – a campaign that set the stage for Operation Typhoon, the German effort to capture Moscow in 1941.

Why Kiev has not garnered more academic analysis from military historians is puzzling. Kiev was an epic battle in scope of men, equipment and terrain. Kiev at its most basic centers on questions that even in the current war we have yet to adequately answer: What should be the center of gravity? How do we deconflict the differences between the civilian leadership and military professionals? Here at Kiev, Hitler made what was a difficult choice, to turn away from Moscow to liquidate Soviet forces in the Ukraine. The logic made sense – in doing so, he ensured flank security and wanted to secure the industrial and economic heartland of the Ukraine for the Third Reich.

What Stahel brings to the intellectual table for the Armor leader is a new and robust examination of the efforts of the Soviets in this battle. History has portrayed the Soviets’ efforts as either passive or feeble until Stalin realized the Germans had encircled the pocket. Only then does the conventional history tell us of desperate and suicidal attacks by the Soviets trying to break free.

Stahel ably lays out the challenges faced by both sides: leadership for the Soviets, and the grinding down of the Wehrmacht in terms of equipment readiness; a shrinking pool of personnel replacements; and a decline in combat power due to unexpectedly heavy combat losses. Stahel’s use of statistics to show the ever-declining strength of the panzer units sets your teeth on edge since the numbers only trend downward. What is also important is Stahel’s efforts to understand the criticality of the Russian effort to destroy their railway system and the Third Reich’s inability to regauge and operationalize the existing Soviet railway system.

Stahel’s conclusion was that by the end of this campaign, the Germans had lost the war in the East. I’m not certain if I agree with that, but Stahel’s underlying premise is that the Third Reich’s window of opportunity to win early and big had faded considerably. The beauty of this book is that it can be read in isolation from Stahel’s other works. Two caveats, though: this is not a day-by-day account, and the maps are likely to produce some frustration. Moreover, Stahel has a tendency to wander far afield of Kiev, but I see this as his efforts to put it into the war’s larger context. Still, for both the combat leader and the logistician, this book is highly recommended.