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How critical was the capture of Moscow during WWII? Were the Germans really 1 mile away from essentially destroying the Soviet Union?(r/AskHistorians)
This question belies an essentially pre-WW1 mode of strategic thinking. People very much like the view of strategic conflict which boils down to a the capture of key assets and outposts. We want war to be chess — capture the king and the game is won. That’s how the great romantic stories of the Middle Ages shake out – great sieges and decisive battles – and it appeals to the narrative storyteller in all of us.
But it’s not and it hasn’t been that way for quite some time. To really get what makes modern conflict tick you have to understand what war is and by extension what its participants are.
War is conflict between states. The political scientists will probably want to fight about that but as historians such a rudimentary definition will serve us pretty well for another 10 years or so; it certainly works well in WW2. The participants, save the French resistance, are all pretty much major state actors. We know them well: the US, the USSR, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, etc but what matters for this discussion is that they’re states.
Ok, what are states then? States are the political entities which can claim sovereign authority over their territory; to put it another way – states are the institutions that get to decide who lives and dies in a specific place. That ultimate authority over life and death allows the state to mobilize resources for war. It can put men under arms, tax, ration, and otherwise regulate the lives of every person within its territory. Because it can kill it can order men to their deaths and thus can make war. Indeed, we might go so far as to say that the capacity to make war is one of the defining characteristics of a state (but more on that latter).
Now traditionally a war is over when one “side” — state or group of states — decides that the cost of fighting exceeds the cost of not fighting. In, say, the Spanish-American War the cost of maintaining naval and land operations against the United States after defeats in both theaters of the war outstripped the importance of any demands made by the United States and the Spanish sued for peace.
But those costs are determined by what the winner can make them and what the political objectives of that winner are. Contrast the primarily colonial nature of the Spanish American war with the situation facing Japan during WW2. It is somewhat likely that American insistence on “unconditional surrender” prolonged the war with Japan as the US was demanding a very high cost for not fighting anymore. Indeed, the price of peace was the end of the political entity that constituted the government of Japan at the time. In a real sense, WW2 ended in the Pacific with the end of Japanese sovereignty and thus its status as a state. (It’s not my intention to make this response about Japan’s surrender; it’s just an illustration. )^1
It is in this sense that WW2 was a “total war.” There are lots of definitions of “total war” but I’m partial to the history of the phase as expressed by General Eric von Ludendorff and by Carl von Clausewitz before him. These men described the mobilization of the whole resources of the state against the whole resources of the enemy. Curtis LeMay, architect of the air campaign against Japan in the latter stages of WW2 would later describe his vision for total war in the nuclear age as “killing a nation.”
Mobilization on such a level doesn’t just mean a draft; though a draft is typical in a total war. Total war means resource requisitions, industrial appropriation, etc. It means that the entire productive capacity of the state is focused on the war effort and, in an age of air-power, that the entire productive capacity of the enemy is a target.
But such a condition is VERY hard to maintain. It requires the husbanding, not just of physical and human resources, but of political ones as well. War makes life on the homefront hard; it demands sacrifices not easily made and if the people do not believe in the worthiness of the cause they will chafe at the idea. Total war is therefore simultaneously a military and political struggle. As in World War I, World War II sees attempts to disrupt the fighting ability of the enemy both by physical means — destroying factories, killing troops — and by political/psychological means — blockade, starvation, terror weapons.
During the First World War the Russians were defeated, not because the Germans took key strategic locations like St Petersburg or Moscow, but because their citizens were starving and they viewed the war as not worth the sacrifice any longer. Russia was defeated politically before she could be defeated militarily; the revolution that overthrew the Tsar and, later, the revolution that ousted Krensky and brought the Bolsheviks to power stemmed from the erosion of political will brought on by the strain of supporting the war effort. The end of the Great War in the East thus came with the destruction of one of the belligerent states.^2
While the mechanics of the war were different, World War II was much the same kind of conflict in terms of its totality. The capture of Moscow, while important from a psychological standpoint, would not have been sufficient te break the will of the Soviet government nor so decisive as to crush the capacity of the Soviet military to continue fighting. Therefore the fall of Moscow could only have ended the war in the East if it broke the will of the Soviet people to such an extent that they would risk revolt against Stalin rather than face Hitler’s guns.
Assessing if that would have happened is hard and counterfactual as a historical question. As the fall of Moscow didn’t happen we can only speculate as to what might have followed it and here we diverge from what we can safely call “history.” What we can say with some certainty is that the Soviet government had communicated and committed to a policy of scorched-earth retreat. The movement of productive capacity beyond the Urals and the willingness to evacuate ahead of the advancing Germans formed the core of the Soviet commitment to long-term resistance to German occupation and would likely have provided some basis for an ongoing resistance.
Yes, Moscow was an important rail and telecommunications hub. Without it Soviet industry would have been severely hampered but as this map of World War II era Soviet rail lines shows, alternative routing around Moscow, while challenging, was not out of the question.
So would capturing Moscow have knocked the Soviets out of the war? Probably not. The Soviet government itself did not seem to regard it as a tipping point and while it’s difficult to work out what civil unrest the fall of Moscow might have created elsewhere in the USSR, the Soviet government in 1942 was certainly on more stable ground than the Russian government in 1917.
Note that I am not saying that Japan ceased to be a place at the end of WW2. Rather I am suggesting that the institution of government which ruled Japan in 1944 effectively ceased to exist as a precondition to the close of hostilities. Just as the close of WW2 in Europe involved the systemic purge of the Nazi regime, the close in the Pacific purged the Japanese military clique. In so doing the political entity that controlled Japan prior to surrender was effectively killed – its power broken and turned over to its occupier.
Likewise the end of WW1 in the East came with the effective destruction of the Tsarist regime. While the USSR shared similar borders and a similar population to the Russian Empire that had come before it, politically it was a different institution. The necessary collapse of the Russian Empire came, not as a precondition for peace from Germany, but as a consequence of the Tsar’s commitment to the conflict: the people reached their breaking point before the government and overthrew the government as a result.
Edits: Since someone gilded me I felt like I should clean up the prose here and address the rail line question that everyone seems to be asking. I hope this makes things clearer.