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German invasion of Russia

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BerichtGeplaatst: 08 Aug 2008 13:34    Onderwerp: German invasion of Russia Reageer met quote

Germany went into World War I planning to quickly defeat France through its long-anticipated Schlieffen Plan, finishing off Russia at its leisure. This would give the Germans, with assistance from the Ottoman Empire, access to oil in Persia, a country under Russiaís economic dominance. Coupled with the raw materials of central and eastern Europe and German financial and management abilities, Persian oil would be the final necessary addition for an empire under German dominance stretching from the North Sea to the Persian Gulf. When Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Germanyís ally Austria-Hungary, was assassinated in June 1914, a chain of events was set into motion that brought the world into war.

Germany urged Austria to blame the Serbian government for the act of terrorists and to demand concessions so intense that Serbia could not comply. When Austria declared war on Serbia on 28 July, Russia rallied to the aid of its fellow Slavic country. Germany declared war on Russia on 1 August; this was followed by another declaration on Russiaís ally France on 3 August. The following morning, German troops violated Belgian neutrality on their way 197 around the French armyís flank, and by doing so brought Great Britain to Belgiumís assistance.

Most of Germanyís forces were dedicated to the offensive in France; the German Eighth Army remained in the east to maintain an active defense for a predictably slow Russian mobilization. When Russian forces scored a small early success in Poland, two infantry corps and a cavalry division were transferred from France to East Prussia. A new commander was also brought in: Paul von Hindenburg, a veteran of the Franco- Prussian War. He was assisted by a very able chief of staff, Erich Ludendorff, and inherited the talents of Chief of Operations Max Hoffman. The Eighth Army faced the Russian First and Second armies in Poland and had just retreated from the more northerly enemy, the First. Hindenburg and Ludendorff took control just as the Eighth was repositioning itself to attack the Russian Second Army to the south. The result was a huge German victory at Tannenberg at the end of August. Within two weeks the Germans had pivoted northward and destroyed the Russian First Army at the battle of Masurian Lakes. These victories did not result in momentum, for the exhausted German troops soon found more Russians in their path and retreated to East Prussia.

In the meantime, the Austrians had not had good luck against Russia. They attacked northeast into Galicia, and at first made good headway against the Russians, but the overconfident Austrian commander, Count Conrad von Hotzendorff, attacked Russian forces who were not as broken and demoralized as he had believed. By the end of August, as the Germans were winning at Tannenberg, the Austrians were in full retreat and did not stop until they reached the Carpathian Mountains in mid-September. Against Russian casualties of 250,000, the Austrians lost 450,000, virtually half the army with which they had started the war.

German forces attempted to capture Warsaw in October, but ran into fierce Russian resistance, which forced Hindenburgís men back to their starting point. Though he continually faced superior numbers, Hindenburg had the advantage of a superior intelligence staff who regularly intercepted Russian wireless transmissions. Using this knowledge of Russian plans and troop dispositions, Hindenburg shifted forces to attack Lodz, which the Germans captured after difficult fighting in December. Throughout the last months of 1914, Hindenburg begged for more men, but could get few from Erich von Falkenhayn, army chief of staff, who was dedicated to the Western Front. For the most part, the Eastern Front got reserve divisions, but enough new troops arrived to make up three armies (the Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth) by the end of the year, with Hindenburg in overall command.

In 1915, the Germans scored their greatest successes. In late January, Austrian forces attacked in terrible weather, and after early success, ground to a halt in the snow. In a second battle east of the Masurian Lakes in mid- February, the German Ninth and Tenth armies captured 55,000 Russians and drove off the remainder of the Russian Tenth Army, though the Russians did not have the ability to press farther. The German successes could not convince the High Command to send more troops, but the Austrian difficulties brought a new army to the east. Falkenhayn sent the newly formed Eleventh Army to aid the Austrians, and together (with massed artillery preparations), they broke through the Russian defensive positions in Galicia in May. The Russians fought bravely but lacked the necessary ammunition; Russian transport was woefully inadequate. By 22 June, the Germans and Austrians were at the Bug River. Hindenburg favored a huge pincer operation with his forces, idle in the north, swinging around to meet the Austro-German force and capturing the Russian army. Falkenhayn and Kaiser Wilhelm settled instead for a smaller pincer that won battles but failed to surround the Russians. Even with the addition of a fourth army, the Twelfth, to Hindenburgís eastern force, the Germans were unable to destroy their enemy. By the autumn of 1915, the Russians had extracted themselves from any encirclement and saved their army, though they were forced to take up new positions deep in their own territory. The Germans had captured vast tracts of land, but Falkenhayn refused to maintain the momentum and withdrew several divisions from the east to return to France. Hindenburg was told to go on the defensive.

The Russians conducted a scorched-earth withdrawal and forced the residents of the abandoned countryside to flee with them. This actually aided the Germans, who did not have to worry about feeding or keeping an eye on a hostile population. It hurt the Russians by burdening their overtaxed supply system, and the waves of refugees spread defeatism. Despite this negative development, the Russians had time to recover their strength when the Germans went on the defensive. New but short-term Minister of War Aleksai Polivanov raised and trained two million conscripts and got Russian industry up to the task of producing weapons and ammunition. He reorganized the Russian army into three fronts, but the commanders of two of them were incompetent. Only Aleksei Brusilov, commanding the Southwest Front against the Austrians, was an inspired choice. He saw the potential for success in the south and exploited it.

The Austrians, Brusilov believed, were a broken reed. They had recently removed many of their Slavic troops to fight their new enemy, Italy, which meant that the hold on their section of the front would be weakened. A Russian offensive in the north in mid-March 1916 had come to naught, and the front commanders there never again mounted serious attacks against the well-entrenched Germans. Nevertheless, German attention was focused in the north, and that meant that Brusilov was able to prepare his offensive more easily. After a 24-hour bombardment, the Russians attacked five Austrian armies on 5 June. They were unstoppable. The Austrian armies on the flanks broke, and the Russians took 200,000 prisoners in the first week. Brusilov called a halt to regroup. Had the commanders of the two northern Russian fronts launched attacks at this time, the German force, which had been spread thin by the transfers to France, would have been unable to hold on. After the failure in March, however, they would not move until too late. Hindenburg was able to shift men to the south to stiffen the Austrians just in time to stave off disaster. By October, Brusilov had reached the Carpathians and overlooked the Hungarian plains, but he could go no farther. The well-trained men with whom he had begun the offensive were now dead, and their replacements were too green.

Brusilovís offensive had far-reaching effects. The Habsburg monarchy in Austria-Hungary was faced with increasing ethnic tension that affected the army as well as the civilians. Emperor Franz Josef died in November 1916, and his successor, Charles, began secret negotiations to take Austria out of the war, but the Germans would not allow it. There were negative side effects in Russia as well. The loss of one million men in the offensive, on top of the quarter million casualties per month the Russians had lost in the first year and a half of the war, was causing unrest on the home front. The addition of Rumania as an ally had no positive results; their army was useless and their country overrun in four months. Russia was ripe for revolution.

On the German side there were changes as well. The setback with Austria brought an end to Falkenhaynís tenure as chief of staff, and he was replaced in August 1916 by Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Max Hoffman became the commander of German forces in the east. After pleading so long for increased attention to the Russian front, the two new leaders shifted their attention to France. They finally learned just what had been occurring for two years in the west, and they had to deal with British and French offensives that kept men away from Russia. It looked as if the Eastern Front would become inactive while both sides tried to recover.

Russia broke first. Bad news from the front, coupled with food shortages, brought riots in March 1917. The troops ordered to quell the riots joined them instead, and Czar Nicholas was obliged to abdicate in favor of a democratic government under the leadership of Alexander Kerensky. He tried to keep the war effort going, but proved no more successful than the czarist government. The German foreign office tried to negotiate a separate peace with Kerensky, but the lack of German military activity gave hope to the new Russian leader. He kept the army going for another few months, long enough for the new commander in chief, Brusilov, to launch a new offensive in the south in the summer of 1917. It soon petered out, and Hoffman counterattacked in mid-July, making strong gains in Galicia. He ordered his forces in the north to attack the Russian flank at Riga, and captured that city easily in September.

The German successes caused friction between Kerensky and his new commander in chief, Lavr Kornilov. Kerensky believed that Kornilov was plotting against him, so Kerensky was forced to ally himself with the Bolshevik leaders he had kept in jail. They turned against him and overthrew him in six weeks. The Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, called for immediate peace talks, but balked at Ludendorffís demands for huge territorial concessions. A new offensive in February 1918 changed Leninís mind, and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk removed Russia from the war. Germany transferred hundreds of thousands of men to France for the spring offensive of 1918, but the timely arrival of American forces blunted Germanyís last great hope in the west. If the occupation forces kept in the east had also been shifted, it may have had a decisive effect, but that can never be known.

Ultimately, the German invasion was successful only until November 1918, when Germany was forced to sign an armistice. The Versailles Treaty that was forced on the Germans in the summer of 1919 took away all their eastern conquests as well as their overseas possessions. The greatest effect of their offensive was not on Germany but on Russia, because the war hastened the downfall of the Romanov dynasty and brought the Communists to power. Their reoccupation of the Ukraine caused such hostility that the local population would ever after chafe at Communist control and yearn for the day they could be free of it. The Treaty also left the Germans with a grudgeóthe land they had won was taken from them. Hitlerís dreams to reconquer that land would bring on another world war.
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