The essential fact that must be appreciated by the reader of Megargee’s works in the area of German military history is that the author is passionate and opinionated about both his subject matter and the works—and character—of others who write, or have written, about it. In order to have perspective on this phenomenon, it is useful to consider one of the incidents in which Megargee has indulged his passion.
The particular incident in question took place in the pages of The Journal of Military History, the principal publication of the Society for Military History. In Volume 66, Number 3 of the Journal, published in July, 2002, there appeared a review of the then recently released Barbarossa: Hitler’s Invasion of Russia, 1941, by David M. Glantz. If there is such a thing as a “preeminent scholar”, then Colonel Glantz is certainly one, his subject being the titanic struggle between Germany and the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1945. The review was written by Russel H.S. Stolfi, who was at that time Professor Emeritus at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.
Both Glantz and Stolfi are well known to scholars and others with an interest in the Russo-German war, the former for the unmatched contribution to the field that he has made over the last several decades, and the latter for his interesting thesis that victory in that war was within the grasp of the German Army in the summer of 1941. Barbarossa: Hitler’s Invasion of Russia, 1941 is only one of a plethora of works authored by Colonel Glantz (to say nothing of the myriad original documents from the Soviet perspective that he has self-published). Professor Stolfi’s principal works are Hitler’s Panzers East: World War II Reinterpreted, in which he first disseminated his thesis, and the more recent German Panzers on the Offensive, on the same subject.
Professor Stolfi’s critique of Barbarossa: Hitler’s Invasion of Russia, 1941 is brief and to the point. Simply put, Stolfi contends that what he characterizes as the thesis of Barbarossa—viz., that a “combination of Red organizing capabilities and Russian stubborn resistance…was responsible on its own merits for slowing and containing Operation Barbarossa” is wide of the mark, and that his (Stolfi’s) thesis—that the dithering wrong-headedness of Adolf Hitler in deciding not to focus on the seizure of Moscow, at a time when the capture of that prize was well within the capabilities of his soldiers—adequately explains the failure of the German Army to end the war in 1941. In developing his criticism of Barbarossa, Professor Stolfi denigrates neither Colonel Glantz nor his work—indeed, the opposite is true—but simply argues that, in his opinion, the historical record supports his interpretation rather than that of the author of Barbarossa.
The effect upon Megargee of Professor Stolfi’s critique of Barbarossa: Hitler’s Invasion of Russia, 1941 was something akin to that aroused in the bull which has seen a red flag waved before its eyes. “Readers of this journal”, thundered Megargee, “would be well advised to seek another opinion” of Barbarossa than the one offered by Stolfi. After admitting that he had not read the book in question, Megargee nevertheless “insist[s] that the work deserves a more informed, careful review”, since the one proffered by Stolfi does “an injustice to both the book’s author and this journal’s readers.”
Megargee paraphrases the thesis postulated by Professor Stolfi—in both the review of Barbarossa and Hitler’s Panzers East—as “if Hitler had only listened to his generals and driven on to Moscow in August 1941, instead of diverting forces into the Ukraine, Germany would have won the campaign and the war.” Megargee argues that “Stolfi’s analysis, like that of the Germans at the time, gives short shrift to the strategic and operational realities of 1941”. If one correctly understands Megargee’s view of “the Germans” in general, and specifically of the German officer corps of Second World War vintage, to say that a scholar’s analytical powers are “like” those of “the Germans” is to say that those powers are either nonexistent, or of the meanest possible sort.
“The key question,” Megargee continues, “‘What if the Soviets don’t give up?’ is one that the Wehrmacht’s leaders never answered, or even addressed.” Nor, according to Megargee, did Stolfi. Stolfi’s conclusions with regard to German chances for victory are based upon “unrealistically generous estimates of German strengths and capabilities, especially in logistical terms; upon estimates of Soviet capabilities that he draws form a one-sided reading of contemporary German sources; and upon sweeping assumptions concerning Soviet military actions and long-term economic and political power.”
Most importantly, from Megargee’s point of view, Stolfi gives “no attention at all” to the “complex interaction of the Germans’ barbaric occupation policies with Soviet resistance.” Megargee then goes on with his own speculation, stating that even if what he describes as the Stolfi thesis were true “the fact remains that, helped along by German barbarism and hubris, Stalin’s regime would have maintained its grip on power and kept fighting, and the Germans would have been stuck in the east just as firmly as actually happened.” Stolfi, according to Megargee, did nothing in his review of Barbarossa other than promote “his own counterfactual challenge to the ‘conventional wisdom’”.
Thus, “if Glantz really claims that Soviet resistance at Smolensk caused Hitler to direct his forces into the Ukraine, that contention deserves careful analysis. Stolfi provides neither an examination of Glantz’s sources nor any comparison with the most important secondary works on the campaign, such as those by John Erickson or the Military History Research Institute in Potsdam. The end result is a review which presents neither an accurate alternative version of events nor a sound critique of Glantz’s analysis.”
Professor Stolfi responded to Megargee’s complaints in a letter printed in the Journal in juxtaposition to that of his critic. Stolfi’s letter speaks for itself, and does not require comment here. The comments of Megargee, however, are worthy of some consideration. The most obvious line of inquiry suggested by Megargee’s letter is that prompted by his admission that he had not read Glantz’s Barbarossa: Hitler’s Invasion of Russia, 1941 before dashing off his letter defending it to the Journal.
How, for example, if he had not read Barbarossa, could Megargee assert that Stolfi’s review of it was careless and ill-informed? Put another way, if Stolfi read Barbarossa, and Megargee did not, which of them, commenting on the book, was more likely to utter a careless and ill-informed opinion about it? One is reminded of Steve Martin’s satirical jibe at those who “criticize things [they] don’t know about”. Lack of knowledge about Barbarossa, however, did not deter Megargee from commenting authoritatively about it. Neither, for that matter, did Megargee's abject lack of knowledge about the sources relied upon by Stolfi in Hitler’s Panzers East: World War II Reinterpreted.
Again, in a situation in which Professor Stolfi clearly had read Barbarossa, and by his own admission Megargee had not, upon what possible basis could Megargee have concluded that Stolfi’s review of the book did “an injustice to both the book’s author and this journal’s readers.”
Is there substance to Megargee’s assertion that Stolfi’s thesis results from, among things, “estimates of Soviet capabilities that he draws form a one-sided reading of contemporary German sources”?
In looking at this question, it is worth pointing out that Megargee’s use of the term “contemporary” in this context is a bit confusing, since it is unclear whether the “contemporary” German sources to which he refers were “contemporary” with the events of 1941-1945 discussed in Stolfi’s work, or “contemporary” with the publication of the post-war memoirs of some former German generals.
For the purposes of this commentary, however, we may assume that Megargee referred not to authentic wartime German documents, but to the postwar memoirs of German officers. This is a safe assumption under the circumstances, since Megargee’s writings demonstrate a clear animus on his part toward the postwar works of any German officer who served under Hitler. In this case, the German officers involved, and their respective works, were principally Colonel General Franz Halder, The Halder War Diary 1939-1942, Colonel General Heinz Guderian, Panzer Leader, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, Lost Victories, Major General Friedrich von Mellenthin, Panzer Battles, and General of Artillery Walter Warlimont, Inside Hitler’s Headquarters 1939-1945.
Then again, when Megargee states that Stolfi’s thesis is based in part of a “one sided reading” of German sources, does he mean that Stolfi was “one sided” in his reading (how does one read “one sidedly”?), or that the authors he read were “one-sided” in their writing?
As to Megargee’s suggestion that Stolfi relied upon the postwar works of German officers to the exclusion of legitimate wartime historical documents, we may observe that Hitler’s Panzers East contains 261 footnotes. One hundred forty-six (56%) of those footnotes are based on captured German documents in the possession of the National Archives and/or the Halder Diary, while only 5 rely solely upon the works of Guderian or his compatriots.
Should there be any question whether the Halder Diary is in the same source category as the microfilm records of German field commands, it should be noted that Megargee himself relies upon it extensively, and treats it as a primary historical source document in both War of Annihilation and Inside Hitler’s Headquarters, notwithstanding his evident loathing for its author.
What of Megargee’s charge that Stolfi’s thesis in Hitler’s Panzers East relies in part on “unrealistically generous estimates of German strengths and capabilities, especially in logistical terms”? Part IV of Hitler’s Panzers East, entitled “German Tank Losses, Casualties, and Logistics”, is the portion of Stolfi’s work that deals with German strengths and capabilities relative to the ability of Army Group Center to capture Moscow in August/September, 1941.
Stolfi argues that the German Army had correctly estimated the number of casualties that it would incur during the first two months of the campaign, and were thoroughly prepared to deal with those casualties, which in the event turned out to be 18,000 less than the budgeted 275,000 figure.
In addition, in late August, 1941, the German panzer forces still had in operating condition 65% of the tanks with which they began Barbarossa. According to Stolfi’s calculations, therefore, the eight divisions of Panzer Group Guderian that would carry the burden of capturing Moscow and ending the war were operating at 65% of their tank strength, and 80% of their personnel strength (when compared to the figures with which they began the war against the Soviet Union), which in Stolfi’s opinion made the likelihood of a successful effort to capture the Soviet capitol well within the realm of possibility.
Stolfi’s discussion of the condition of the primary assault force for the German advance on Moscow occurs in Chapter 10 of Hitler’s Panzers East, which is supported by 24 footnotes. Leaving aside those references which rely on secondary sources, 16 (64%) of the 24 footnotes supporting Chapter 10 are to primary source documents, namely captured German Army records residing in the U.S. National Archives and/or the Halder Diary. The numbers provided in those original primary source documents are not estimates, generous or otherwise, but actual figures reported by units in the field, to whom it was important to know the true status of their weapons and the men who wielded them.
The remaining portion of Part IV of Hitler’s Panzers East is Chapter 11, entitled “German Logistics: Could the Germans Support an Advance into the Moscow-Gorki Space in the Summer of 1941?”, in which Stolfi takes up the matter of logistics. As in the previous chapter, Chapter 11 is founded on the premise that the German Army could and would have defeated the Soviet Union within the 6 to 10 weeks upon which all of its planning was based.
From Stolfi’s point of view, it was irrelevant that preparations were not made for fighting in winter, since it was reasonably anticipated that by the onset of winter the Soviet Union would be no more. On the other hand, Stolfi argues that German logistical planning was well up to the mark when considered in the context of the scheme upon which the offensive was based. The necessary food, fuel, ammunition, medical supplies, and other necessities would be provided by delivery over a rail system repaired and converted to European gauge by the Army’s railway engineer troops, deposited at previously selected railheads, and moved to the troops in the field from the railhead by the fleets of trucks organized by the Army for that task. Of the 19 footnotes upon which Chapter 11 is based, 14 (73%) are to original source documents. Megargee’s charge that Stolfi’s thesis is based on “unrealistically generous estimates of German strengths and capabilities, especially in logistical terms” is therefore incorrect.
Another ground cited by Megargee to support his claim that the Stolfi thesis is fallacious is that in formulating it, Stolfi made “sweeping assumptions concerning Soviet military actions and long-term economic and political power.” Since Megargee does not identify the “sweeping assumptions” allegedly made by Stolfi, the reader is left to his/her own devices in determining exactly what those assumptions might have been. This is not as easy a task as it might seem, given the fact that Stolfi has as his focus the capabilities of the German Army to achieve victory in the summer of 1941, rather than the ability of the Soviet Union to avoid defeat.
About the closest the reader can come to divining Stolfi’s fatal “sweeping assumptions” is the following: “With the…fall of Moscow on 31 August 1941, one must consider that the Soviet government could have lost its capability to mobilize the peasants and would have disintegrated politically. Strong anticommunist currents survived in Russia, which could have combined to end the war in late autumn 1941 with mass support of a peasantry unwilling any longer to be shot either by Soviet commissar or German combat soldier. Then, the campaign could have ended with ‘negotiations’ between a Russian government and the National Socialists, while the German army advanced eastward against a small, rump Communist government and forces loyal to it. Regarding the potential for collapse of the Communist government, these possibilities are summed up effectively in the words of a Russian prisoner in July 1941 to his captors: ‘Where have you been: we have been waiting for you for 23 years.’”
It would not be stretching credulity to say that the point of view offered by Stolfi in the language just quoted is not based on mere “sweeping assumptions” about the future political, economic and military capabilities of the Soviet Union. There were indeed “strong anticommunist currents” still surviving in Russia in 1941, in spite of the Regime’s ruthless efforts to stamp them out. One need look no further for evidence of this phenomenon than the well-publicized positive reaction of the Ukrainians toward those whom they perceived as their liberators from the Stalinist yoke, or the steadfast willingness of the Vlasov Army to fight on the side of the Third Reich until the bitter end for both of them. And Megargee’s speculation about the future conduct of a post-collapse Soviet Union is just that—-speculation—-and thus no better than the different future contemplated by Stolfi.
The dust cover of Geoffrey Megargee’s War of Annihilation, with which this review began, is a fitting place to end it as well. The common thread in the words of praise for Megargee’s work quoted from Williamson Murray, Christopher Browning, Gerhard Weinberg and Dennis Showalter—eminent scholars all in the field of military history—is that Megargee’s work has broken new scholarly ground by integrating the tactical successes of the German army in Operation Barbarossa with the genocidal activities of some of its members.
And it is the absence of this line of “analysis” in Stolfi’s work that is really at the crux of Megargee’s outrage with it. Megargee’s view is that Stolfi pays “no attention at all” to the “complex interaction of the Germans’ barbaric occupation policies with Soviet resistance.” Stolfi, it would seem, cannot be faulted for this if, as Megargee’s colleagues suggest, the latter was the progenitor of this thesis.
But although Megargee willingly accepts these accolades—and why would he not, considering the benefits accruing to him therefrom—the fact is that it is nonsense to contend that Megargee broke new scholarly ground by associating the genocidal activities of the Nazi regime with its military successes. The thesis that mass murder—and in particular, mass murder in eastern Europe—was integral to the Nazi war machine has been a staple in the field of military history for at least four decades, since the publication of Alexander Dallin’s German Rule in Russia and Alan Clark’s Barbarossa.
It would be more correct to say that Megargee’s stature among his peers has more to do with the alignment of his work with the rank Germanophobia that pervades academe than it does with the alleged novelty of his approach to the subject matter. If there be any novelty in Megargee’s work, it is his conjoining of “every German a war criminal” with “German military prowess is a myth”.
Professor Stolfi’s crime is his failure to make Megargee’s thesis his own.