Completely under-estimating the Bolsheviks: Goebbels’s diary on the siege of Moscow

The multi-volume diaries of Joseph Goebbels provide a fascinating insight into German assessments of the Red Army during Operation Barbarossa in 1941. The German ‘intelligence’ had concluded that the Red Army was under-prepared, ill-disciplined, badly equipped and even more badly led. At the beginning of the invasion of the USSR, Goebbels opined that the German army was ‘without a doubt the most powerful that history has ever known,’ and that the Russian forces ‘were very inferior, so inferior that the Führer gave them no further thought’. Soon, however, his tone began to change, especially after the Wehrmacht encountered the well-organised and creative defence of Moscow.

2 July 1941 (after the first week of the siege):

All in all, we fight very hard and obstinately. We cannot in any way speak of a promenade. The red regime has mobilised the people.

24 July 1941

We have no doubt that the Bolshevik regime, which has existed for only a quarter of a century, has left deep traces among the people of the Soviet Union … It would be fair to reveal with great clarity to the German people the difficulty of the struggle that takes place in the east. It is necessary to say to the nation that this operation is very difficult, but that we can overcome and that we will overcome.

1 August 1941

The Führer’s headquarters also admits openly that we are a little disappointed in the assessment of Soviet military strength. The Bolsheviks are revealing a resistance much greater than we supposed; specifically, the material resources at their disposal are greater than we thought.

19 August 1941

The Führer is very irritated that he has allowed himself to be misled concerning the potential of the Bolsheviks by German agents in the Soviet Union. The under-evaluation, especially of tanks and planes, has created numerous problems. He is suffering greatly. This is a serious crisis … By comparison, the countries we have conquered until now were almost promenades … Regarding the west, the Führer has no reason for concern … With our diligence and objectivity, we Germans have always over-estimated the enemy, with the exception, in this case, of the Bolsheviks.

16 September 1941

In calculating the potential of the Bolsheviks we were completely wrong.


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