Excavating in Hitler’s Path
Written by: David Stahel
The battle of Moscow involved 2.5 million men on both sides of the eastern front, making it one of the largest and, without question, one of the most important battles of the Second World War. According to Andrew Roberts, Hitler’s offensive towards the Soviet capital was nothing less than decisive: ‘It is no exaggeration to state that the outcome of the Second World War hung in the balance during this massive attack’. For both sides, the battle for Moscow was an epic of endurance and sacrifice, while its sheer magnitude concentrated the world’s attention as never before.
There can be no debate that Nazi Germany’s drive on Moscow was a human calamity with few precedents in history. The battle began at the start of October 1941 with Operation Typhoon and, with a two week pause at the start of November, continued to the very gates of Moscow by early December 1941. As one German soldier wrote: ‘Burning villages, the bodies of dead Russian soldiers, the carcasses of dead horses, burned-out tanks, and abandoned equipment were the signposts of our march.’ Magnifying this level of destruction across a front nearly 700 km wide, Army Group Centre, the German force charged with seizing the Soviet capital, left a torrent of devastation through central Russia.
Nazi Germany’s drive on Moscow was a human calamity with few precedents in history
The offensive towards Moscow was only the latest in an unbroken series of battles that Army Group Centre had fought since June 1941. The trail of destruction began with a two-week battle at Minsk, followed by a two-month battle at Smolensk, and then a month of fighting down into Ukraine for the battle of Kiev. Even before the battle of Moscow, the number of dead, wounded and missing in the Nazi–Soviet war counted in the millions. It was warfare on a colossal scale, which was not lost on the participants of the time. Kurt Vogeler wrote home in December 1941 shortly before his own death:
The world has seen many great, even grand wars. But there has probably never been a war in its history, which can measure up to the present in Eastern Europe. This is true both of its size, which stretches for many hundreds of kilometers of active front, the vast spaces that host battles with million-man armies of opposing nations, but also by the method and manner of the fighting itself.
Truly comprehending warfare on this scale is especially difficult. Reviewing the wartime records of armies, corps and divisions, checking supply timetables and production graphs, reading the accounts of the leading generals all goes a long way towards capturing the overall picture of events, but it only paints, in the broadest of brush strokes, how the war was actually experienced by the men who fought it. Even first-hand accounts only tell us the stories of those who survived and had the opportunity to publish their experiences or otherwise commit them to a public record. There is no doubt there are some very valuable soldiers’ memoirs (notwithstanding the problems post-war accounts present), as well as some outstanding publications of letters and diaries, but these are still relatively few in number given the millions of men that took part.
Visiting the battlefields on the approaches to Moscow one can hardly avoid the imposing number of Soviet memorials. These testify to the fact that however much we may have learned about this chapter of history there is far more that must be left unrecorded, which died with its participants. In that sense it is even more important not to lose sight of the human dimension of this battle, because it is apparent just how much has already been lost. Yet the old Soviet battlefields serve as much more than just sites for passive reflection about the past. These battlefields are very much active sites for historical inquiry, as well as dangerous worksites for the discovery, identification and reburial of countless lost soldiers still listed as ‘missing in action’.
In September 2012, I visited some of these battlefields together with government-approved ‘searchers’, Russian volunteers who work every summer looking for artefacts, clearing away ordinance and seeking to lay to rest as many remaining war dead as possible. At first glance, the vast tracts of undisturbed forest appear like any other in northern Europe; only the odd mangled and rusted vehicle, often obscured by undergrowth and trees, are traces of the events that once took place here. For the most part, the forest appears like any other; its historical importance is deceptively inconspicuous. Yet once the metal detectors were turned on a vast battlefield was revealed to lie just below the surface of the forest floor. Literally every few steps yield new discoveries. Most of these objects are harmless – parts of weapons, gas masks, helmets, bayonets or shell fragments – but not infrequently unexploded grenades and other ordinance are dug up, making it easy to see why searchers die every year in Russia. Indeed, the fact that Hitler’s war in the east is still today claiming Russian victims is one reason why the Nazi–Soviet war remains so very much a part of the contemporary Russian national identity.
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