To win the war planned by Hitler, Germany, a highly industrialized country but lacking colonies and therefore woefully short of strategic raw materials, had to win it fast, before Germany’s stockpiles of petroleum ran out. These reserves, much of which consisted of imports from the US, had been built up in the years leading up to the outbreak of war, and they could not be adequately replenished by synthetic fuel produced at home (on the basis of coal) and/or oil supplied by friendly or neutral countries such as Romania and – after the Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 1939–the Soviet Union.
In this context, the Nazis had developed the strategy of Blitzkrieg,“lightning warfare”: synchronized attacks by massive numbers of tanks, airplanes, and trucks (for transporting infantry), piercing the defensive lines behind which the bulk of the enemy’s forces were typically ensconced in the style of World War I, then encircling these forces, leaving them to face either annihilation or capitulation. In 1939 and 1940, this strategy worked perfectly: Blitzkrieg produced Blitzsieg, “lightning victory,” against Poland, Holland, Belgium, and – spectacularly so – against France. When, in the spring of 1941, Nazi Germany was poised to attack the Soviet Union, everyone–not only Hitler and his generals but also the army commanders in London and Washington – expected a similar scenario to unfold: the Red Army was expected to be finished off by the Wehrmacht within a maximum of two months.On the eve of the attack, Hitler felt supremely confident: he reportedly “fancied himself to be on the verge of the greatest triumph of his life.”
From the Ostkrieg, their Blitzkrieg in the east, Hitler and his generals expected much more than from their previous lightning campaigns. Their stockpiles of fuel and rubber had already dwindled after their gas-guzzling planes and Panzers inflicted death and destruction in Poland and Western Europe; by the spring of 1941, the remaining supplies of fuel, tires, spare parts, etc. sufficed to wage motorized war for no more than a couple of months. The shortfall could not be compensated by imports from the still neutral US, which continued to arrive, mostly via Spain, and in return for the limited supplies of Soviet oil, Germany had to deliver high-quality industrial products and state-of-the-art military technology, used by the Soviets to strengthen their defenses in preparation for a German attack that they expected sooner or later. This dilemma was to be resolved by attacking the Soviet Union, and by attacking as soon as possible, even though stubborn Britain had not yet been vanquished: the “lightning victory” that was confidently expected to materialize quickly in the east would deliver to Germany the rich oil fields of the Caucasus, where the gas-guzzling Panzers and Stukas would in future be able to fill their tanks to the brim at any time. Germany would then be a truly invincible über-Reich, capable of winning even long, drawn-out wars against any antagonist. This was the plan, code-named “Barbarossa,” and its implementation got underway on June 22, 1941; but things would not work out as its architects in Berlin had expected.
While the Red Army took a terrible beating at first, it had not massed its forces at the border but opted for a defense in depth; withdrawing in relatively good order, it managed to elude destruction in one or more of the kind of huge encirclement battles that Hitler and his generals had dreamed of. The Germans advanced, but increasingly slowly and at the price of great losses. By late September, they were nowhere near Moscow and still a very long way from the Caucasian oil fields that were the real object of their desire. And soon the mud, snow and cold of fall and early winter were to create new difficulties for troops that had never been expected to fight in such conditions. In the meantime, the Red Army had recuperated from the blows it had received initially, and on December 5, 1941, it launched a devastating counter-offensive in front of Moscow. The Nazi forces were thrown back and had to adopt defensive positions where they would be able to survive the winter after the Soviet attack petered out. On the evening of that fateful fifth of December, 1941, the generals of the Wehrmacht’s high command reported to Hitler that, on account of the failure of the Blitzkrieg-strategy, Germany could no longer hope to win the war.