Like most Westerners with an interest in World War II, I have a primary interest in either the Atlantic or Pacific theaters, but have virtually zero interest in the Eastern Front. But it was in that theater from mid-1941 until the Red Army took Berlin in May 1945 that the war was actually decided. It was where the vast majority of the deaths during the war occurred, where Germany was literally bled white, and what enabled Hitler to accomplish the extermination of the Jews on a scale that dwarfed what had happened before 1941.
I don't know where I got this book, or why, but I pulled it out the other day and decided I wanted to learn a little more about the theater. It's the companion book to a 1999 BBC series which took advantage of the fall of the Soviet Union to get at the stories of many Russians who participated in the battles either as soldiers or civilians.
The book reminded me why I dislike this theater. It's very unpleasant reading. Hitler ordered that Russians – even the civilians in territory Germany occupied – be treated as subhumans, and the level of barbarity and cruelty that resulted is unparalleled, with two exceptions. The first is the Holocaust, and the second is the barbarity with which the Soviets treated their own people. That they left hundreds of thousands of captured German soldiers to simply starve to death is almost just a footnote to the death count Stalin ran up.
What this book did tell me was some of the stories about what the Russians endured – not from the Germans but from their own leaders, and provide some insight into why they endured it. The book does also illuminate a little better why Hitler invaded Russia – and that his generals were not opposed to it as they later tried to claim. But I still don't like the subject. There's no good side to that side of the war, but we remain enormously indebted to Stalin's Soviet Union for taking the brunt of Hitler's military for almost four years.
It's hard to imagine what the reconquest of Western Europe would have looked like if Hitler had had hundreds of additional divisions to deploy in the West. Rommel could have taken Egypt, and the invasion of France would have been infinitely more difficult and taken longer to mount. Assuming Britain and the U.S. didn't lose the willpower to defeat Hitler, and approximately the same timetable applied, it's hard to picture the Allies being able to push Germany out of France in 1945, even if they did get a foothold in Normandy. In fact I can't see the Allies defeating Germany at all until a year or so later at best, after application of atomic bombs to German cities, and the Allied bombing campaigns against Germany reinforced by the B-29 Superfortresses the ended up going to the Pacific.
But atomic bombs don't destroy armies, and as the war that did occur showed, bombing campaigns never eliminated the need for ground armies to take territory and defeat the German armies. And they never did that without massive superiority in men and materiel. Had Hitler not been devoting the majority of his resources to fighting Russia, the armies the Allies faced in the Western campaigns would have been far larger and better equipped and supplied.