Operation Barbarossa, 80 years later
Perhaps the most important moment in World War II came on June 22, 1941, when Nazi Germany launched its invasion of the Soviet Union – shocking the world and terrifying Joseph Stalin’s heart, but sowing the seeds for Adolf Hitler’s downfall. 80 years later, FRANCE 24 looks back on Operation Barbarossa.
One of the most striking eyewitness accounts of this extraordinary outbreak of militarized violence – in which around five million people were killed in 200 days – comes from the German soldier Alexander Cohrs: âTwo villages were burning in front of us. Civilians were utterly surprised; They didn’t have time to flee. The most terrible pictures were a three-year-old child lying in the middle of the street with half his head missing. “*
Barbarossa shattered the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the USSR, which was signed in August 1939. Stalin was shocked; he had received a plethora of warnings of an impending invasion – particularly from Winston Churchill, who was briefed by British intelligence. The communist dictator refused to believe them.
“It must be a provocation of the German generals,” he told senior Soviet officials in the early hours of June 22nd. “I’m sure Hitler is not aware of it.” *
One year after the French armistice, Hitler felt the need to act to the day because his previous strategy of throwing Great Britain out of the war had failed. After the Royal Air Force defeated the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain in 1940 and Churchill made it clear that Britain would remain a thorn in Hitler’s side, the Nazi dictator turned to the USSR.
âBritain, which remained at war after the fall of France, effectively destroyed Hitler’s strategy, so he had to come up with a new plan – to conquer the USSR in order to realize his dream of Germany habitatâExplained Jean Lopez, co-author of Barbarossa: 1941, La Guerre Absolue.
A shocked Stalin hesitates
Hitler had already presented this concept of the German âliving spaceâ in Eastern Europe my fight – but his failure to defeat Britain gave him a fresh impetus. âHe wanted to use it habitat So he was able to successfully wage a long war against Great Britain and the USA because the Third Reich did not have enough resources without usurping those of the USSR, âsaid Lopez.
More immediate geostrategic considerations in Eastern Europe also motivated Hitler, noted Richard Overy, a history professor at Exeter University and author of numerous books on World War II, including Russia’s war.
“Soviet expansion into the Baltic states, Romania and Poland, followed by requests for influence in Bulgaria and the Turkish Strait in November 1940, made it clear to Hitler that Stalin was a serious strategic threat that needed to be addressed,” Overy said.
“The Soviet Union was also the home of the Jewish-Bolshevik” [a conspiracist canard at the heart of Nazi ideology] so that defeating the Soviet armed forces would also remove the communist threat that hangs over Germany and Europe, âOvery continued. Hitler used a “motive cocktail” at various points in order to “convince himself of the necessity and justice of war”.
Surprisingly, their enemy was playing to the benefit of the Nazis when a stunned Stalin stalled. âHe hesitated for a few hours, wondering if it was a real invasion, an attempt to force negotiations, or a mere provocation,â says Lopez.
As a result, the Soviet forces suffered colossal losses during the Armed forces torn into the USSR. Millions of soldiers were surrounded, stripped of their supplies and forced to surrender.
The Stalinist regime also threatened Soviet troops. The fearsome NKVD secret police were ordered to shoot any soldier suspected of âcowardiceâ – while people suspected of lack of patriotism were sent to slave labor.
Abrasion of the Wehrmacht
Conditions at the front were brutal when 10 million men, 30,000 planes and 25,000 tanks collided in a gigantic life-and-death battle. “Fanatics shot at us until the roofs collapsed over their heads and left them in ruins,” said the German soldier Hans Rother, recalling the fighting in the Ukraine. *
It is a myth that the Wehrmacht enjoyed unbridled success up to the famous turning point in Stalingrad from August 1942 to February 1943. Overy said: âThe Red Army was ill-prepared at the border and it was very difficult to have a solid or coordinated line of defense. Important tactical and technical differences maximized the impact of the German attack – for example, Soviet planes and tanks lacked radio communications; Infantry tactics were also awkward in 1941 and only improved later.
“However, the German armed forces soon ran into logistical difficulties, had to spend a lot of time clearing niches of resistance from bypassed Red Army soldiers, and suffered strategic confusion at Hitler’s headquarters,” Overy continued. “The difference was big enough for big early wins, but by November / December hopes of victory in a few weeks or months were completely dashed and momentum was never restored.”
âThere was no turning point in and of itself; rather an ongoing process of wear and tear that puts the Wehrmacht down, âadded Lopez.
A new stage in the Holocaust
Barbarossa failed because of fierce opposition from a hostile Nazi ideology that was mistakenly viewed as inherently weaker – as well as the logistical difficulties of entering the vast areas of Russia, especially in winter (the same problem that cursed Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1812 invasion). But Barbarossa also undermined the cruelty of the Nazis towards the local population.
Some people in the occupied territories welcomed the Wehrmacht as liberators from Soviet oppression. But this soon turned out to be an illusion. The brutality of the German armed forces against civilians became part of everyday life. Millions of Soviet prisoners of war died under terrible conditions on death marches from the front and in forced labor camps.
“Hitler started a war of annihilation,” said Marie Moutier-Bitan, a Holocaust historian and author of Les Champs de la Shoah. âOn May 13, 1941, the head of the Bundeswehr High Command, Wilhelm Keitel, signed a decree granting a preventive amnesty for all crimes allegedly committed by German soldiers against civilians on Soviet territory. This decree also gave army officers the freedom to launch retaliatory and repression campaigns against civilians on the slightest suspicion without prior investigation. “
Operation Barbarossa marked a new stage in the Holocaust, as Jews were the main target of the mass killings of German soldiers. âPogroms and the bullet Holocaust increased during the invasion,â says Moutier-Bitan. “The SS-Einsatzgruppen had the task of eliminating the political opponents of the Nazis and Jews who were suspected of supporting the Soviet regime – but soon they began to shoot large parts of the Jewish population.” More than 500,000 Jews were between murdered on June 22nd and at the end of 1941 in the area of ââOperation Barbarossa.
For Hitler, Barbarossa was only the beginning of the end. While Barbarossa was the act of hubris that led to the arch enemy that overthrew National Socialism, the tide turned decisively against Hitler when the USSR triumphed in Stalingrad under unspeakable conditions and the British defeated Erwin Rommel’s troops at El Alamein in November 1942 It took two more than two and a half years of death and suffering for the Soviet soldiers to hoist the red flag over the Reichstag, surrounded by the smoke and rubble of an exhausted, defeated Berlin.
* Quoted in Barbarossa: 1941, La Guerre Absolue by Jean Lopez and Lasha Otkhmezuri.