June 22, 1941. Over three and a half million Axis soldiers crash across the border of the Soviet Union in a surprise attack. As much of the Red Air Force is destroyed on the ground, columns of panzers and trucks lunge deep into the heart of Russia, followed by hordes of infantry, horses and carts. Welcome to the most terrible front of the most terrible war in human history – the Eastern Front.
The Eastern Front of World War II holds a special fascination for me. It is almost impossible to understand the scale of the Nazi-Soviet War, both in its size and its unimaginable suffering and cruelty. If every other portion of World War II – D-Day, Pearl Harbor, the atomic bombings, the war in the Pacific, the Allied invasions of Europe – had never taken place, if they were all subtracted, the Nazi-Soviet War would still be the deadliest war in human history. The largest land campaigns in the world, before and since, were fought in this climactic struggle between Fascism and Communism. Armies of literal millions, with thousands of tanks, planes, and artillery pieces, squared off in enormous engagements. At its peak, the frontline extended more than 1,800 miles from north to south, from the Arctic to the Black Sea – the distance between Maine and Florida.
It was a struggle of previously unthinkable depths of inhumanity and suffering. Hitler’s war against the Soviet Union was explicitly a war of genocide and annihilation, with the main targets being the population of Belorussia, the Ukraine, and the Caucasus – areas where the residents were slated to be exterminated so that room could be made for German colonists. Civilian casualties were not only accepted but actively encouraged; the average German soldier was remonstrated to show no mercy against the *untermenschen.* The amount of brutalization, torture, rape and murder that followed the Axis advance was unseen in modern times. The Holocaust was a major part, but only a part, of German war crimes in the Soviet Union, many of which were committed with almost cartoonish cruelty against the average civilian.
The Soviet Union had been completely unprepared for a German attack. When Hitler had invaded Poland in 1939, he and Stalin had made a secret pact of – if not alliance – mutual assistance. This Nazi-Soviet Pact gave Stalin control of eastern Poland and a free hand in the Baltic States and Finland, in exchange with supplying Hitler with raw materials during his wars against Britain and France. Stalin naively believed that this pact would keep Hitler from invading Russia, but Hitler always planned to break the treaty when it was convenient.
This begs a good question, and actually gets to the heart of what I’m talking about today – WHY did Hitler invade the Soviet Union, and WHY did he think he could win? And just as importantly – WHY didn’t he?
As I addressed partially in my post about Hitler about six weeks ago, one of Hitler’s core beliefs was the need for Germany to obtain a large colonial empire similar to the British or French empires in Africa and Asia. Rather than a far-flung world empire, though, Hitler believed in a vast land empire in deliberate mimicry of the United States and its westward expansion. Hitler equated America’s war against the Native American with his own war against the Russian. To be able to take their place as the master race of humanity, the Germans would have to subdue the Slavic subhumans of Eastern Europe and turn them into a slave race to ensure Germany’s economic primacy for the future.
I’ve seen a lot of people argue that “Hitler would have won if he didn’t invade Russia,” but this ignores that it was one of the cores of Hitler’s ideology. German conquest of Russia was, in Hitler’s mind, not only necessary but RACIAL DESTINY. It was a matter of when, not if. So why did Hitler attack the Soviet Union when he did? After all, he was already fighting Great Britain. Even if Britain could hardly hurt Germany very much, they hadn’t been defeated yet.
One of the big reasons for this is that Hitler had gotten it into his head that Britain was only hanging on because they hoped the Soviet Union would come rescue them. France’s surrender hadn’t persuaded Britain to give up, and the German Luftwaffe had failed to destroy the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain; the British obviously had something else giving them hope for victory. This was dubious logic at best – if Churchill was waiting for anyone, it was the United States, and there was no love lost between Churchill and Stalin – but it gave Hitler an excuse to do what he wanted to do all along.
There’s no reason to put all the blame on Hitler, though. For the German military, Britain posed an uncomfortable problem. It was an island with a strong Navy and Air Force, meaning that any strategy to defeat them would rely on subtlety, creativity and attrition. These had never been German strong suits, especially not where strategy was concerned. When Hitler informed the General Staff that he intended to attack the Soviet Union, they uttered not a peep in protest – even though it would mean putting the war against England on the back-burner for the foreseeable future. They began planning the offensive with gusto, assuming it would be another easy victory.
This brings us to our second question: why did the Germans think they could win an easy victory against the Soviet Union?
Another myth to bust here is that “Hitler was stupid for invading in the winter.” The Nazis invaded in June, first of all. Hitler was stupid for other reasons.
The #1 reason, straight up, is that Hitler, the German generals, and even Britain and the United States straight up underestimated the Soviet Union’s ability to resist. Hitler famously claimed that “we only have to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down!” It’s important to remember that all these men had been alive for World War I, when Russia under the Tsars had collapsed into Revolution and chaos midway through the conflict. It was hard for Germans to forget the days in 1917 and 1918 when the Russian armies fled in every direction before them, surrendering en masse and making the last months of World War I’s Eastern Front a cakewalk. This gave Germans a feeling of superiority borne from experience, as well as their ideological notion of racial superiority.
These combined to cause not only Hitler, but almost every other general and public figure in Germany, to believe that 1941 would be a repeat of the same. It was also an article of faith that the Communists were degenerate, weak, and corrupted by Jewish influence, so that they could never stand in battle against Germany at the height of its power. It’s important as well to note that throughout the 1930s, the German military had been far more concerned about the French than the Russians; with the French beaten so quickly in 1940, it seemed like the hard part was over.
These perceptions were reinforced by German intelligence reports about the Soviet Armed Forces. It can’t be said enough: German military intelligence was the worst in Europe, worse than many weaker nations like Poland or Italy. Intelligence reports routinely underestimated the size of the Soviet military, as well as its tank and air strength. German estimates of 2.5 million Soviet troops in the frontlines were correct, but it missed the large reserve armies in the rear as well as the enormous reserves. One of the few Soviet success stories before 1941 was their vast pool of trained Army reservists, numbering some 14 million – or more soldiers than Germany would raise in the entire war. Somehow, German intelligence completely missed these reserve units, which would be the main strength of the Soviet war effort after mid-1941.
German intelligence failed in many other ways too, perhaps most famously in tank design. In the first few days of their attack, the Germans encountered the Soviet T-34 and KV-1 tanks – machines that vastly outmatched even the best German vehicles. These tanks were a huge shock to the Germans when they really should NOT have been, if military intelligence had been remotely capable. Suffice to say, the Germans vastly underestimated the quality and quantity of their enemies for both ideological and intelligence reasons – and would pay the price.
But not for a while. On June 22, 1941, the launching of Operation Barbarossa pitted almost 3,800,000 Axis soldiers from Germany, Romania, Hungary and Finland (but mostly Germany) against 2,500,000 Soviet soldiers in the border areas. There were signs of trouble, sure. The Soviet soldier fought with dedication and courage, far exceeding German expectations, with many fighting to the death. The debut of new Soviet tanks and weapons was a nasty surprise to German units. And only a few weeks after the war had begun, the Germans had started to run into Soviet armies that weren’t supposed to exist. In Hitler’s own words, they had kicked down the door – but somehow the structure had not collapsed. It was actually getting…stronger?
To the victorious Germans, though, these seemed like minor details. They were doing their best to win the war in six weeks, and if looked like it was going to take a little longer, they were clearly winning. German Panzer armies lanced deep into Soviet territory, surrounding huge Red Army forces in pockets that would be annihilated before the Panzer Armies moved on again. Minsk, Smolensk, Kiev all fell to the Nazis. Behind the advancing Axis travelled the Einsatzgruppen – SS units specifically formed for genocide. In every major Soviet city, the Einsatzgruppen began to round up and slaughter the Jewish populations. Most of the Soviet Jews in the occupied territories never made it to the camps; they were led to isolated fields in the wilds of Ukraine or Lithuania and gunned down in ditches.
In a few months, the prewar Soviet Army had been shattered. Millions of men had been taken prisoner, being sent back to Germany to be starved in concentration camps or worked to death in factories. Much of the Soviet Union’s resource and industrial base had fallen into German hands, along with vast quantities of arms and equipment. Even the T-34 and KV-1 were unable to stop the tactically and professionally superior German tank units.
One of the main reasons for the early German victory was sheer surprise: the Soviet high command had almost refused to believe they were under attack. When the first panicked outposts reported on the morning of June 22, it went something like this: "We are being fired upon. What shall we do?" only to be answered with "You must be insane. And why is your signal not in code?" The surprise allowed the German Luftwaffe to destroy most of the Soviet Air Force on the ground, and in many cases shock and paralysis kept the Soviets from taking critical steps in the first few days that could have stopped or at least slowed the Germans.
So with all of this…why did Germany fail in 1941? Why was Operation Barbarossa, the largest attack in history, which took the largest number of prisoners, completed the largest encirclements, and won some of the greatest battles in history, ultimately a failure?
The Germans planned for a campaign of weeks, not years. Believing that the Soviets would fall apart with one great blow, they planned on destroying the Soviet Army and driving on Moscow and Stalingrad before August. They built their entire operational and logistics plan around this notion, and were completely unprepared for a war that didn’t end in autumn of 1941. The famous failure to bring proper clothing for the inevitable Russian winter was not because the Germans didn’t know about the winter – they just figured they would have won the war by then, and getting the coats and jackets to the frontline troops would be no big deal. They didn’t plan that by October 1941, they would still be slogging forward against millions of determined Red Army troops on the road to Moscow.
The almost unbelievable optimism that infected German planning touched everything. The Germans, even as they shattered entire Soviet armies, took catastrophic losses in men and machines – losses that were acceptable, because the war would be over in weeks. The German automotive industry was unable to supply the huge number of trucks and cars needed to move German supplies inland, so that the Nazi forces had over 170 models of wheeled vehicles, confiscated from all the countries they had invaded, supplying their forces. This created a parts and repair nightmare, but that was OK – the war would be over in weeks. German tank production was far below replacement capacity, but it was fine – the war would be over in weeks. Tens of thousands of Soviets, cut off behind German lines, escaped into the woods and swamps to become guerrillas – but there would be time for them, because the war would be over in weeks.
The war was NOT over in weeks. The Germans suffered one million casualties from their irreplaceable veteran army in 1941, while the Soviet Army actually got stronger due to their massive pool of trained reservists. The German supply system broke down by August, and troops were stealing horses and carts to transport their wounded and sick hundreds of miles into the heart of Eurasia. The vast wastes of Russia seemed to swallow up the German Army, and as their problems got bigger their ranks got thinner.
And of course, the Soviets had something to do with it. The Soviet soldier resisted with fanaticism and courage that stunned their Axis foes. Soviet production, supposedly hampered by Jewish influence and Communist laziness, began to pump out shocking numbers of tanks and guns. Even if Soviet generals were not as skilled in tactics or the Soviet soldier was not as skilled in combat (yet), the Germans were already suffering attrition on the wrong side of the balance sheet.
By July 1941, some German generals already realized they had bitten off more than they could chew – but still nurtured faith in the Fuhrer, German supremacy, and their murderous ideology. If that was what they truly relied on, it was a thin reed. As they clawed their way in a wave of death across the vast lands of Ukraine, Belorussia, and Lithuania, plowing deeper into the nameless forests and endless plains of Russia, Nazi Germany trekked towards its doom.