Hubris & Arrogance on Europe’s Everest – Mt. Elbrus: A Metaphor of German Defeat In The East

In less than three years, from September 1939 to the early summer of 1942 the German Army conquered nearly all of Europe. They Blitkrieged their way through Western Europe, owned central Europe, cut fiery swathes across southern Europe, tore through Eastern Europe and penetrated deep into the heart of European Russia. The Wehrmacht looked invincible. It could achieve any goal, occupy any land. Whatever challenge was presented, the Germans were up to it and this was about to include the highest point in Europe. From a topographical standpoint, the Germans already occupied the lowest of Europe’s low points, specifically the Zuiplaspolder in the western Netherlands. This had come rather easily. The opposite extreme was much more daunting, but this challenge stoked German ambition and arrogance.

Mt. Elbrus in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia - at 18,510 feet (5,642 meters) it is the highest peak in Europe (Credit: Александр Сорель)

Mt. Elbrus in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia – at 18,510 feet (5,642 meters) it is the highest peak in Europe

Ambitions of Conquest – Mountains & Oil
By August of 1942 the German Army was within sight of Europe’s highest point, Mt. Elbrus in the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia. There were a few German officers and soldiers who peered up at this towering mountain and lost sight of their main strategic goal, pushing further southward in an effort to secure supply lines to conquer oil fields in the Caucasus region. Mt. Elbrus held no strategic value. It was nothing more than a point of interest, but its icy summit was an open invitation to German ambition. This was the same blind ambition, which believed in ultimate victory over everyone and everything. The mountain most not only be scaled, but for symbolic reasons it also had to be claimed. Oddly enough, the greatest German megalomaniac in history, Adolf Hitler, would virulently disagree with this undertaking.

What had brought the German Army to the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains in 1942, nothing more than the Wehrmacht’s failure to capture Moscow in the fall and early winter of 1941. The Army was now at a standstill. The war looked like it would last much longer than expected. The upshot of this unexpected stagnation was that the German’s simply had to secure the one critical resource for conducting mechanized warfare, oil. With a consistent supply of oil, the Germans believed they would deliver a final knockout blow to the Soviet army. The Caucasus region in the southern Soviet Union was rich in oil. Even further to the south on the Caspian Sea, were inexhaustible reserves at the oilfields of Baku in Azerbaijan. Taking control of these was absolutely critical, to the point that the Germans refocused their war effort in the spring and summer of 1942 away from Moscow and towards the Caucasus.

German troops high in the Caucasus Mountains during the winter of 1942-43 ( Credit: Deutsches Bundesarchiv)

German troops high in the Caucasus Mountains during the winter of 1942-43 ( Credit: Deutsches Bundesarchiv)

To Climb & Claim – The German’s Take Mt. Elbrus
In a near repeat of the year before in Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia, the Wehrmacht met with great success as they began their offensive in southern Russia. Soon they found themselves on the edge of the Caucasus, but this was only the initial goal, they had to keep pushing southward. The Caucasus range offered a formidable obstacle, massive in both height and breadth. Europe’s tallest mountains stretch for 750 miles, containing a multitude of towering peaks over 15,000 feet tall. Though Russia only contains a small portion of the range – the majority are in Georgia – the tallest mountain in the Caucasus, Mt. Elbrus can be found there. It stands alone, visible from many miles away, isolated from other peaks in the range. Its only competition is itself. It contains not one, but two summits, an east dome and the taller western dome soaring to 18,510 feet (5,642 meters).

As the German Army’s 1st and 4th Mountain Divisions made their way into this area, several of the alpinists were tantalized. Here was Europe’s tallest peak standing before them. Elbrus was an unbelievable prize. Its great height put the Austrian Tyrol and the Swiss Alps to shame. Who would have thought they would ever see this summit, let alone have the opportunity to climb and claim it for the fatherland? German officers probably saw Elbrus not in mountaineering terms, but in symbolic ones. The Third Reich’s flag could be planted on its summit, an act of propaganda which would show that Germany towered over all of Europe.

Thus the decision was made to send an expedition to the summit. A 23 man team met no resistance. The Soviets had long since fled the mountain’s inhospitable upper reaches. Elbrus’s notoriously unpredictable weather cooperated. A mountain that even today claims the lives of on average twenty climbers per year, offered the Germans a pristine window of opportunity. They managed to reach the highest point, Mt. Elbrus’s west dome, on the 21st of August, 1942. The Third’s Reich’s war flag, along with the divisional flags of the 1st and 4th Divisions were firmly planted atop the icy summit.

German Mountain troops with the Swastika flag on Mt. Elbrus - it was (literally) all down hill from there

German Mountain troops with the Swastika flag on Mt. Elbrus – it was (literally) all down hill from there

Idiotic or Foolish – Arrogance At The Extremes
Oddly enough, Adolf Hitler, a man who worshiped at the altar of symbolism, was livid over the climbing of Elbrus. Hitler wanted every soldier in the 1st and 4th Divisions pushing onward. These troops were supposed to be driving south to the Black Sea, not bagging peaks. Their ultimate objective had been to secure the port of Sukhumi, which could act as a resupply point for armies driving toward the oil rich Caspian. One of Hitler’s closest confidantes, Albert Speer recalled the Furhrer’s visceral reaction to the expedition, “I often saw Hitler furious but seldom did his anger erupt from him as it did when this report came in. For hours he raged as if his entire plan of the campaign had been ruined by this bit of sport. Days later he went on railing to all and sundry about “those crazy mountain climbers” who “belong before a court-martial.” They were pursuing their idiotic hobbies in the midst of a war, he exclaimed indignantly, occupying an idiotic peak even though he had commanded that all efforts must be concentrated upon Sukhumi” The Germans never made it to Sukhumi. It is doubtful that the alpine sideshow at Elbrus had any effect upon their campaign. The climbers only numbered twenty-three, compared with tens of thousands of soldiers. Conversely, the Elbrus expedition was symptomatic of a much larger problem for the German military, foolish arrogance.

The Soviet flag being placed over the Reichstag in Berlin - the ultimate sign of Soviet victory and German defeat (Credit: Yevgeny Khaldei)

The Soviet flag being placed over the Reichstag in Berlin – the ultimate sign of Soviet victory and German defeat (Credit: Yevgeny Khaldei)

Egotistical and Ephemeral – Mt. Elbrus & German Decline In The East
In retrospect, the ease with which the German expedition climbed Mt. Elbrus seems metaphorical. German offensives in the summers of 1941 and 1942 had met with success after success, but this only led the German Army deeper and deeper into the Soviet Union. All those victories were symbols of German might, but they were not harbingers of ultimate victory. Instead, like the scaling of Elbrus, they were indicative of hubris, outrageous arrogance. Was there anything the German Army could not do, was there anywhere they could not conquer? The answer to those questions would come resoundingly that winter, when an entire German Army was destroyed at Stalingrad and German troops began to be pushed back. The scaling of Elbrus was egotistical and ephemeral. Ultimately it yielded absolutely nothing. Soviet troops took the peak back only six months later. In February of 1943, the Soviet flag was raised on Elbrus. A little more than two years later, a Soviet flag would be raised above Berlin.

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