Kursk

It Was the Greatest Tank Battle in History

People in the United States know very little about World War Two as it was fought in Europe. The real war in Europe was waged on the Eastern Front, after Hitler invaded Russia in the summer of 1941. At first, it was all blitzkrieg, with German victories on all fronts and horrendous Russian losses. Things began to change after Stalingrad, however, when the entire German 6th Army surrendered to the Soviets.

The next big battle was at the Kursk salient. Hitler and his generals planned to attack the salient from two sides, take Kursk, and trap several Soviet armies. This was the intent of Operation Citadel, as shown in the map below:

Operation Citadel as the Germans Planned It

The German General Staff thought the Russians would take fright at the Nazis’ technologically superior tanks and surrender in droves. But the Russians—beginning with Stalin himself—learned their lesson in 1941 and 1942. In July 1943, Stalin realized he had more human and industrial resources to draw on than the Germans. This was similar to Ulysses S. Grant realization during the American Civil War when, after the Battle of the Wilderness, realized that he could afford to take more casualties than Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and still win.

Instead of pinching off the Russians in the salient, General Walter Model advanced only 10 miles on the north, where he was beaten by Rokossovsky’s Central Front. The real battle was in the south, where General Erich von Manstein battled with Nikolai Vatutin’s Voronezh Front over the town of Prokhorovka. Vatutin kept throwing rifle regiments, tanks, and artillery at von Manstein’s Army Group South until, after a 30-mile advance, the Germans could go no further.

The Russians had a very good idea of what the Germans were planning with Operation Citadel, and they had more men (at a 2.5:1 ratio) than the Germans, and more tanks (though not as good). So they planned carefully to fight to the last man, if necessary.

The Battle for Prokhorovka (The Germans in Blue)

By the time Vatutin and Rokossovsky had finished with the German army, there was no more blitzkrieg. Hitler didn’t know it yet, but from this point his armies were in retreat.
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There Is Some Good News

Stadium Sequence from Triumph of the Will (1935)

If you are feeling despondent about politics in America in 2018, I recommend you google YOUTUBE RIEFENSTAHL TRIUMPH OF THE WILL. People make a lot of glib comparisons between Trumpf’s Administration and Nazi Germany. Leni Riefenstahl’s great documentary of the 6th Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg in 1933 will make you see how the present differs from that dismal event eighty-five years ago. The film is one and three quarters of an hour long, but it is mesmerizing in its icy control and will suggest several major differences between then and now.

First of all, Hitler and the Nazis were always on message. There are no 3 am Tweets that contradict one another. The Führer knew what he wanted to say and said it—even when he was lying through his teeth. A major attempt is made during the Congress to heal the split between the Brownshirts (the Stürmabteilung or SA) and the SS. Yet between the Congress and the time this film was released to the German public, the Night of the Long Knives took place, and the Brownshirts were purged, and many of its leaders were executed without benefit of trial. I can only wonder how the German people interpreted all the happy talk about the SA in the film when it was finally released.

It amazed me that so many of Hitler’s lieutenants were with him to the bitter end. It is true that Vice Führer Rudolf Hess defected to England, and many of the SA Leaders were no more; but there were Gõring, Goebbels, Himmler, Streicher, Von Schirach, and many others who made an appearance in the film stayed with Hitler through thick and thin. Compare that with the revolving door in Trumpf’s White House. First there is the inevitable publicity photo of our President smiling and pointing at his new hire as if to say, “See, I bring you the very best.” Then a few months later, “he was never any good anyway.”

Then, too, America is very different. Instead of all those Nazi salutes and Sieg Heils, there would be thousands of upraised middle fingers and hurled garbage. The only way Trumpf can raise a great multitude is in his dreams (witness the size of the inauguration crowd in January 2017).

Adolf Hitler with Film Director Leni Riefenstahl

Despite the fact that women do not play a major part in the 6th Nazi Party Congress, the film of the Congress was directed by a woman who was probably one of the greatest of all women film directors. Whether or not she was a loyal Nazi, she knew how to make a great film. Her film of the 1936 Berlin Olympiad was perhaps the greatest sports film ever made. Its hero turned out to be a non-Aryan American, the great black athlete Jesse Owens.

Riefenstahl got her start as an actress in a strange German film genre of the 1920s: brooding, mystical mountain films such as The Holy Mountain and The White Hell of Piz Palü.