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During Operation Barbarossa, the Germans came dangerously close to capturing Moscow - in fact they were within 20km of the city, and some could even see its buildings. The failure to take Moscow is often considered a clear indication of the failure of the entire operation.

What if the Germans had succeeded in capturing and holding Moscow? Most say that the Soviet Union would still have fought on, given they still had a significant industrial base east of the Urals and plenty of forces from Siberia, but how would this have affected the course of the war? Would this have delayed Germany's defeat, or maybe even hastened it?

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  • $\begingroup$ I believe this would be more suited to History.SE $\endgroup$ – Liath Nov 7 '14 at 8:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Liath alternate history is strictly offtopic there. $\endgroup$ – congusbongus Nov 7 '14 at 9:22
  • $\begingroup$ My reading of the question is more focused on would Russia have fallen rather than what history would have arisen - however I'll retract my close vote :) $\endgroup$ – Liath Nov 7 '14 at 9:39
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    $\begingroup$ I've always been curious..when the Germans moved through and captured Ukraine they were somewhat greeted as hero's liberating them from Russian rule. If the Germans enlisted the Ukranian people who had reasons to join the conflict vs Russia, would the influx of troops would have made a moscow seige possible. Instead Goering declared himself to have the power over life in death in Ukraine and subjugated them and well, thats history. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Nov 7 '14 at 19:59
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    $\begingroup$ Expecting the Nazis to behave well in the USSR is a more far-fetched alt-history than them capturing Moscow. Far more. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Nov 13 '14 at 0:20
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The military and strategic benefit to Germany would probably be minimal. If anything, it might have hastened Germany's defeat.

  • The USSR had contingency plans to evacuate Moscow. In fact, most military and civilian officials evacuated the city between 14-28 October 1941.
  • In all likelihood the defenders would have fought to the death, through a combination of patriotism, fear of German atrocities, and fear of reprisals from their own government. This is what happened at Stalingrad in Aug 1942 - Feb 1943. Germany failed to take Stalingrad after months of brutal house-to-house fighting, which left the city in ruins.
  • If Germany captured Moscow, it would pay a very high price in casualties and materiel for doing so.
  • Hitler was obsessed by symbols. Having captured the Soviet capital, he would have refused to allow a retreat under any circumstances. This would allow the USSR to encircle and destroy the German army in Moscow (similarly to what happened at Stalingrad).
  • About 130 years earlier, Napoleon did capture Moscow but Russia continued to fight and eventually won.

Given all this, what might have changed?

  • With all German resources committed to Moscow, the Battle of Stalingrad probably never happens. It is possible that Germany begins its retreat from the USSR a year earlier.
  • In our reality, the Normandy landings (by the UK/USA/Canada) took place in June 1944, and Germany surrendered in May 1945. If Germany collapsed a year earlier, then the USSR could end up occupying all of Germany (not just the eastern part) and part or all of France as well. This would have extensive consequences for the postwar settlement.
  • Stalin was determined to remain in Moscow as long as possible. If he mistimed his retreat, it is possible he would be killed or captured, with far-reaching consequences. Possibly Krushchev or another figure becomes leader in his place.
  • The most likely scenario is that the USSR fights on and Germany is defeated as above; but there is always the chance that the fall of Moscow and/or death of Stalin causes a collapse in Soviet morale and prolongs the war or even brings about a German victory, we don't really know.
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    $\begingroup$ I think the post-war impacts are maybe the most important aspect. Well thought out. $\endgroup$ – James Nov 7 '14 at 15:54
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    $\begingroup$ Why should Nazi-Deutschland collapse a year earlier because they captured moscow? There's no real sign, that USSR was able to win the war on its own. Without the USA invading France, Hitler had a real chance to beat Stalin. As you said, Stalingrad might have never happened and so there had been many more troops over to prevent the russian counterstrike. In this scenario the Balkan, which was the main gasolin source, had been in german Hand when the US entered the war. The main power of the german troops where their agility. With this plus of gasolin, it had not been lost. $\endgroup$ – Sempie Nov 12 '14 at 12:01
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It's uncertain what would have happened.

On the one hand, Moscow was (and still is) effectively the hub of the Soviet transportation system: the vast majority of road and rail routes pass through it. Capturing Moscow, or even besieging it, would greatly hamper the Soviet ability to move troops and supplies. Having soldiers willing to fight to the death doesn't help if they don't have weapons to fight with or food to eat.

On the other hand, the Soviets were highly skilled at relocating anything movable in response to German advances. The transportation hub would be the only thing the Germans would capture with Moscow -- no factories, no administrative facilities, etc.

It also depends on how the Germans captured it. A smart commander would understand that urban combat completely negates the German advantage in maneuver warfare. He'd surround the city, leave a beseiging force to contain it, and move on to confront the Soviets elsewhere. More likely, though, would be for Hitler to make one of his strategically inept decrees that Moscow must be captured at any cost, resulting in German armies grinding themselves to pieces in house-to-house combat.

Depending on the details of what happens, the result of capturing Moscow could be anything from victory over the Soviet Union, to wearing themselves out to the point that the Soviets could defeat them in 1943 (which has its own consequences).

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    $\begingroup$ The impact of losing this hub depends on how far the Germans could advance past it. If they couldn't press far east, then much of that hub would remain in Russian hands. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Nov 13 '14 at 0:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Oldcat, they don't need to advance very far. If Google Maps is to be believed, ten miles past the city center will get you most of the railroad junctions even today, and 50 miles will get all the junctions and high-capacity roads. The Soviets would be left with lots of routes leading to Moscow, but no easy way to get between those routes. $\endgroup$ – Mark Nov 13 '14 at 0:28
  • $\begingroup$ But they don't really need bypasses, as they will just be heading on to Moscow to drive the Germans out. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Nov 13 '14 at 0:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Oldcat, so the Siberian reinforcements are coming in from the east, while the fuel from the Stalingrad refineries is coming up from the south. In between them is fifty miles of German-controlled road. How do you propose to fuel the Siberian tanks? $\endgroup$ – Mark Nov 13 '14 at 1:01
  • $\begingroup$ The Siberians were infantry, but still. There were fewer roads than with the Moscow hub, but not zero roads and rail lines available. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Nov 13 '14 at 1:04
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Capturing Moscow would not have helped the German army much. The Soviets would have fought to death like they did at Stalingrad. They were under heavy pressure by their own state. The Soviets were not allowed to flee the battle. This is something we see a lot in wars but discipline was very strict at the moment of the war, especially if it's in order to keep the most important city.

The Germans were able to take Stalingrad but they payed a heavy price. Several weeks could be required to take full control of Moscow. They would have to deal with street warfare and guerrillas. These are very costly even with a numerical advantage and they slow the advance of the army. By that time, the army would also suffer from attrition and other Soviet troops can reinforce their reserve to organize a counter offensive.

Even without Moscow, the USSR would still be able to fight, defensively at least. German troops were busy fighting elsewhere and the tide had already started to turn before the battle of Stalingrad.

My point is that taking and holding Moscow would be costly and would yield only little benefits. If operation Barbarossa had not been delayed by several weeks, the Germans would have been able to start the siege before winter and maybe they could have won, avoiding many causalities. But that is another story.

Why soldiers will fight to the end?

  • (I will find the exact passage tomorrow)

In the Art of War by Sun Tzu, there is a passage where the author tells the story of a siege. The city is at the bottom of a cliff, facing the sea. A similar configuration as the beaches of Normandy during the D day operation. The general is the besieger and needs to win the fight. The army came with boats. The army get off on the beach and as soon as the left the ships, the general order to put all the fleet on fire. They army is trapped. The only possibility is to win the siege, otherwise, everyone dies.

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    $\begingroup$ This famous image points to the likely truth behind Vincent's position: edwardtufte.com/tufte/graphics/poster_OrigMinard.gif $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Nov 7 '14 at 5:18
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    $\begingroup$ and don't forget that Stalin had decreed that if a Soviet soldier surrendered not only he but his entire family would be marked as traitors and treated as such (which means, they'd be shot). This caused a bit of trouble for him when his own son was captured (he was an artilleryman, his unit was overrun and they had no weapons or ammunition), but the propaganda machine was able to deflect the situation. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Nov 7 '14 at 7:43
  • $\begingroup$ "Germans were able to take Stalingrad" -- not so, they came very close but the USSR always retained a foothold in the city. $\endgroup$ – Royal Canadian Bandit Nov 7 '14 at 10:13
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Richard Sorge supplied to Stalin info that one of the conditions of Japan attacking USSR was capturing Moscow. So possibly instead of attacking Pearl Harbor, after Hitler's victory in Moscow, Japan would attack USSR, opening eastern front, and USSR would not be able to fight war on two fronts.

this information allowed the release of Siberian divisions for the Battle of Moscow, where the German army suffered its first tactical defeat in the war.

Total collapse of USSR was not even necessary. Hitler's main interest was Caspian oil fields, as the lack of fuel was crippling German war efforts.

Also, without Perl Harbor, it would take much longer to mobilize US economy for war, which might allow Hitler's U-boat to win Battle of the Atlantic

And Hitler could capture Moscow if he only did not diverted tanks from near Moscow to Battle of Kiev.

So yes, you are right, it was very close, and only wrong strategic decision of Hitler to postpone attack on Moscow lost him the battle, and ultimately, the war.

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I once created a "take-off" on Civilization II to answer questions like that. While I have only a "beta" copy of my version, I could get some very interesting results using a "whole world" board for World War II (not just Europe as in the Civ II version). I'll supplement the results by using "real world" battles.

The seven countries are America, Britain, Soviet Union, Germany, Japan, "Neutrals" (e.g. Spain and Turkey in a grand coalition), and "China" (four cities in the back country, Yenan, Chongqing, Llass, and Urumqi).

My theory is that in order to win on the Soviet front, Germany needed to capture both Kiev and Moscow in 1941. And they couldn't. It was one or the other, and they opted for Kiev first, which is why the couldn't get Moscow, and ultimately why they couldn't win the war.

If they advance on Moscow in the fall of 1941, they forego their attack on Kiev. They capture part of the city by December, but by then it's winter, and they barely hold their positions, more or less, as in real life. It takes them until summer to capture the city entirely, and by the time they have finished mopping up partisans (an important feature of the Civ II game), it's almost fall. By the end of 1942, the Germans have captured Moscow and possibly Leningrad, but have let the "big prizes," the southern economic zones, stay Russian.

Meanwhile, the Americans have destroyed the Japanese navy in the battle of Midway, in June, 1942, and the Anglo-Americans have captured North Africa by early 1943. When the Germans resume advancing on southern Russia in summer 1943, the Russians are backed up by Anglo-American troops coming through Persia and the Caucasus. Other American and British forces open a "second front to the north and east; the British land in Archangel (after winning the battle of the Atlantic in the spring, 1943), and the Americans land in Siberia, joining up with the "locals," and attacking German holdings in Russia from the east. All, like the "White Russians" against the Communists in 1919-20 (the British actually occupied Archangelsk at the time. Joint Anglo-American-Russian forces beat the Germans west of the Urals, invade East Europe together (the Anglo-Americans invade Italy in 1944 to co-ordinate around the Black Sea.

The key is that the Americans get involved with Lend Lease, and a modicum of ground troops. In that way, "locals" will rally around them.

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  • $\begingroup$ Civ II's resource model is too simplified to simulate this (eg. it can't model Japan's crippling fuel shortage), and its logistic model is of limited value for modeling troop movement and useless for anything else. $\endgroup$ – Mark Nov 13 '14 at 0:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark: That was my starting point. Although other more advanced applications since then do a better job. $\endgroup$ – Tom Au Nov 14 '14 at 14:33
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I do not confirm most of the answers!

  1. They ignore morale
  2. They ignore the fact that Stalingrad might not have been happened

To 1:

Nazigermany was build on a broken nation. The people had big problems and Hitler gave them very effective solutions. (Not to say he was a hero, don't get me wrong. But he did right in the right time, to receive the peoples trust).

The 3.Reich was build on many symbolic values just as the first step of the war had been. The strike against Poland had the aim to get back old Prussian terretories due their symbolic value of "This is part of our fatherland, get it back!", just like some other regions.

The invasion of France was pure revenge. See Dolchstoßlegende and Treaty of Versailles Treaty of Versailles (not only the content but it's way of creation) was a huge shame for the Volk and the victory take the shame off germany.

Afrikakorps had no real strategic value but gave an big advantage in moral. Germans wanted to be a big nation like GB, Netherlands or Russia, but they weren't able to conquer that many nor so valuable collonies. To conquer these big landmass in exotic africa gave them the feeling that they are at eye level with the other big nations.

Ever thought about the symbolic effect of the Hakenkreuz?

These and many other examples show how important glory and symbolic has been for the germans.

This make me think that the conquest of moscow had changed a lot. A frenchmen(Napoleon), that bitter old enemy which is the pure evil, once captured Moscow but failed to hold it. That the germans where not able to capture what the france had done was a shame again. But if it had been done, to conquer the capital of this big, old and mighty nation, had been another huge symbolic improvement in morale.

Sure, the strategic situation had not altered that far at this point, but do not underestimate symbolic.

To 2:

If Stalingrad had never happened, over 800.000 (!) men had not been lost at this time. Battle of Stalingrad was grinding. Even the fact that german propaganda was super effective, the Volk did noticed how long it took and that so many men must have been died during this battle. This was a big problem. All strikes so far, have been working very well. No one seemed to stop the Blitzkrieg until this point. Stalingrad was the turning point of the Ostfront and without that, Wehrmachts next stop probably had been the Ural (which for sure can not be crossed in winter). This again means, that the german troops had the chance to set up havy defence lines like the Atlantikwall, which shows that they do such things very well. Think of all the heavy losses USA took while invading the Normandy. Did you know that Hitler assumed the USA would invade somewhere else? Maybe the USA had not have any chance when the defense had been at full strenght.

So I assume that the capture of moscow had changed everything. At this time Hitler had not done any big mistakes. Later he had done plenty mistakes wich finally had leaden to lose.

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    $\begingroup$ And the Battle of Moscow would not be grinding? $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Dec 4 '14 at 19:17
  • $\begingroup$ Just a minor point: prior to the battle of Normandy, the US and Britain allowed the Germans to intercept fake intelligence that said Normandy was too well defended and that they were going to invade elsewhere. It wasn't an assumption, it was the basis of the plan. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Fortitude $\endgroup$ – IchabodE Dec 4 '14 at 19:35
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Moscow wouldn't have made much difference. Remember that Napoleon 'captured' Moscow, and it didn't do him any good at all. Moscow was just a symbol. It was a potent symbol, but it was just a symbol.

What Germany needed from Russia was the natural resources further south, especially oil from the Caucasus. In the end, Hitler made a lot of strategic mistakes in overextending Germany.

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Surely, capturing Moscow would have made little difference. At this point, the soviets knew what Hitler was about. Why would you surrender, knowing that the future would be bleak for you at this point - if you even had one, let alone the worry of what would become of your family? Why would you surrender then, just because of the collapse of a city? If you have no choice and the government was still in power and waging you to fight on, why would you collapse just because one city has fallen when you still have thousands of miles of unoccupied land, it's just ridiculous. The fighting would have continued beyond the capture of Moscow, however, the war finally ended.

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    $\begingroup$ The situation was quite critical for the USSR at that moment. They had been retreating from the advance of the German army for a while. And by changing objectives, the Germans gave the Russian more time to get to position. Whereas Moscow might have fallen faster than Stalingrad. Plus the loss of your capital isn't just one city. $\endgroup$ – bilbo_pingouin Mar 30 '16 at 10:32
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I like the answer by Royal Canadian Bandit. But there is also yet another twist that somehow nobody considered. If Moscow had been taken, it's (almost ?) given that Hitler would have come to visit it (and specifically the Kremlin) - it'd be a big milestone, and even without other reasons, the propaganda machine must have used it to the max and show the head of the state in the conquered capital of the enemy.

Given the practice of mining the abandoned cities and leaving special forces and organized guerrilla units behind when leaving the cities, and also the system of secret bunkers, shelters, underground tunnels existing in Moscow for government use (see example), it's not unthinkable to imagine that the Hitler assassination attempt performed in Moscow would be successful. Again, nothing unprecedented: example, another.

Now, that would significantly change the course of the war and history.

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    $\begingroup$ Hitler being killed would in fact have made German victory more likely, anyone replacing him would have more military skill than Hitler did... Stalin getting killed would on the other hand quite likely have led to the collapse of the USSR, the entire system being dependent on his decision making. Without him the Soviet government would have stagnated, incapable of making any decision for days or weeks (as did indeed happen when he died) until a successor could emerge (possibly after a civil war). $\endgroup$ – jwenting Nov 14 '14 at 12:48

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