An admittedly more arcane debate than the usual political/religious/social ones in this forum.
First, a little background. In June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The initial goals were to occupy Moscow and Leningrad before winter set in. This was expected to trigger a general collapse of the Soviet army and government and end the war.
The Wehrmacht initially achieved great success. Red Army formations had been stationed close to the Soviet frontier and many were encircled and captured. Huge amounts of Soviet territory fell to Germany and it appeared the Soviet Union was indeed on the verge of surrender.
By July, the Wehrmacht was about two hundred miles from Moscow and the Red Army appeared to have no credible defenses in place to defend the city. Then Hitler unexpectedly summoned his top generals and told them he was changing their orders. He was halting the advance towards Moscow and redirecting troops towards Kiev. The reason was that Stalin had concentrated a huge amount of troops in Kiev (the third largest Soviet city) and Hitler believed they were now vulnerable to being encircled and destroyed by the Germans.
Most of the generals opposed Hitler’s plan. They argued that Moscow was the original goal of the campaign and a major change like this was a bad idea. Hitler insisted and the plan was carried out. Kiev was cut off and captured and the Red Army lost over a million soldiers.
The drive on Moscow was resumed in October but by now the weather was getting bad. The Wehrmacht was able to get within a few miles of Moscow by December but could not take the city. The Red Army brought in reinforcements and were able to hold on and even counterattack. The Soviets expected a renewed offensive against Moscow in the spring but Hitler ordered a southern offensive instead. But that’s another topic.
Anyway, most historians now say that Hitler’s decision was wrong and probably cost him the war. I’d certainly agree that Hitler made a lot of bad military calls but I have to wonder if this was one of them. I looks to me more like Monday morning quarterbacking.
As I see it, Hitler saw that there were two different targets in the summer of 1941; the political target of Moscow and the military target of Kiev. Hitler decided to concentrate on one target and picked Kiev. Admittedly, it was not an goal in the original pre-war plan of attack, but who would have anticipated that Stalin would put so many troops in such a vulnerable position? Once he did so, it would have been foolish to ignore the opening that existed.
Moscow admittedly was also a valuable prize. But the Soviets were aware of how exposed it was and had already been making plans for its loss. The Soviets had begun setting up a new wartime capital in Kuibyshev further to the east and planned on continuing the war from there if necessary.
So if Germany had stuck to its original plan, Moscow probably would have fallen in August or September. But like the French a century before, the Germans may have found that occupying Moscow did not end the war. Meanwhile, the troops around Kiev would have had an opportunity to withdraw or be reinforced in place. Troops, after all, are moveable unlike cities. The same historians that criticized what happened would instead criticize the Germans for focusing on empty political targets while ignoring the Red Army.
So to return to the title, was attacking the Kiev pocket in 1941 really a terrible idea?