Germany’s invasion of Russia, launched in June 1941, was a turning point in World War II.
Operation Barbarossa or Unternehmen Barbarossa was code name for Nazi Germany’s invasion of Soviet Union. It began on 22 June 1941. The operation was named after the 12th century German Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, who led the Third Crusade against the great Saladin to conquer Jerusalem. Hitler’s knowledge of the Crusades was shaky; he did not know that it was a failure and Barbarossa was drowned in a river in Anatolia.
The ideological origins of the invasion can be found in Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf or My Struggle. As early as 1925, Hitler expressed a desire to conquer the newly established Soviet Union because the superior Aryan-German race needed Lebenstraum or living space. The reason for this bizarre program sprang from the belief that men of the Slav race were Untermenschen—or inferior men. Though Germany’s historic destiny, drangnachosten (drive to the East) had already suffered several defeats over the centuries, Hitler was determined to conquer Slav lands, enslave its people and re-populate Russia with Teutonic people.
The mortal combat between two mighty dictators—Stalin and Hitler—was a phenomenon the world had seldom seen. This battle was between two men who held absolute power over their nations. Both were of humble birth and were of nationalities different from the countries they ruled. Stalin was Georgian, Hitler was Austrian.
Yet there was no animosity between Russia and Germany in 1918. Germany was not part of the Army of Intervention that tried to defeat the new Soviet state. And Soviet Union was not a signatory to the Treaty of Versailles which had imposed punitive reparations on Germany. The terms of theVersailles Treaty were economically ruinous for Germany. The Great Depression and a runaway inflation added to her woes. Her industrial belt in the Ruhr was shattered. The terms of the Versailles Treaty guaranteed a German guerre de revanche against Britain and France. By contrast the Social Democratic Party in Germany looked to the fledgling Soviet Union for support; Germans felt no antipathy towards Russians. Both peoples were struggling against poverty. They had been united in the previous century by mutual admiration for their great literary and musical traditions.
Emergence of the Nationalist Socialist party under Adolf Hitler in 1933 changed the temper of Germany and promised her resurgence. Hitler began repudiating terms of the Versailles Treaty and began building a formidable military machine. The League of Nations looked on at the violation of international law and its own Charter. When the Spanish Civil War began in 1936, Soviet Union sent arms and men to fight for the Republicans, while Hitler and Italy supported their fellow Fascists. The Spanish Civil War was a rehearsal for the battle between Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.
Until 1936 Stalin had no conflict of interest with Hitler’s policy. There was that small matter of burning the Reichstag when communists were blamed. But by 1937, Stalin had torn to shreds the ideals of Marxism and Hitler had displayed his contempt for European liberalism. Transiting from an agrarian to an industrial economy, Soviet Union began building the capital goods industry. Germany survived economically by exporting manufactured goods and industrial equipment to Soviet Union in exchange for Soviet raw materials. It seemed as if cooperation between Germany and Soviet Union would be mutually beneficial.
Maxim Litvinov, Commissar for Foreign Affairs, disagreed. He advocated signing of a defensive treaty with France and Czechoslovakia.
Hitler’s Panzer Division rolled into in offensive Czechoslovakia on the pretext of protecting Sudetan Germans. Litvinov advised Stalin against collaboration with Germany. Stalin responded with a pro-German gesture by appointing the pro-German Molotov in place of Litvinov in May 1939. The German press wrote warmly of Stalin.
Uneasy about the growing amity between Stalin and Hitler, Britain and France invited Soviet Union to form a defensive pact to protect Poland from Germany. Stalin made terms unacceptable to Poland. The proposed treaty fell through.
In a danse macabre France and Britain relished the thought of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia engaged in a war to the finish. Stalin relished the idea of Germany embarking on a war of revenge against France and Britain. A war between imperialist nations would weaken both sides while Soviet Union would concentrate on building its industries and armaments. To do this, Stalin needed time. German invasion of Czechoslovakia left Stalin no illusions about friendship with Hitler.
As early as 1931, Rabindranath Tagore—aristocrat and metaphysical poet—wrote in Letters from Russia, “Russian people must build their strength swiftly. They have many adversaries.” His prophecy actualized exactly ten years later.
In August 1939 the German foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop arrived in Moscow. On 23rd August he and Vyacheslav Molotov signed the German-Soviet non-aggression pact. It is a matter of conjecture whether Stalin—taciturn, devious, ruthless, or Hitler—voluble, ruthless, tried to outwit the other. Mikhail Tukachevsky, the charismatic commander of the Red Army who helped defeat the Tsarist forces, advised Stalin to make massive investment in the armaments sector.Stalin agreed; there began a frenetic increase in production of 82,000 artillery, 7,000 new tanks, 70% increase in aircraft and armoured vehicles. Consumer goods factories began producing war materials. Massive conscription of men and increased motorized rifle divisions and tank divisions empowered the Red Army. Work-day was increased to eight hours and then to every day of the week.
Soviet Union’s espionage network informed Kremlin in December 1940 that Hitler had ordered his generals to defeat Soviet Russia by a surprise invasion. In early 1941, Soviet and American intelligence repeatedly warned Stalin of an impending German invasion. Russian double agent Victor Sorge informed Stalin of the exact date of the attack. Stalin knew that such an attack was imminent but decided not to escalate the mounting tension with Germany in order to buy time to fortify the Red Army.
There was a frenetic deployment of German troops and tanks on Russia’s western borders. Responding to this the Soviet army deployed 2.7 million soldiers comprising 177 divisions on her western frontier. The army had 10,394 tanks, nearly 44,000 field guns and mortars. Over 8,000 combat aircraft occupied air force bases at the frontier. Western military districts established command posts close to the militarized frontier. Army staff and frontline administrative personnel were transferred there in mid-June. Stalin issued orders forbidding Soviet troops to fire on German aircraft in order to mislead the pilots about Soviet military strength and locations.
Russia was soon to pay for Stalin’s purge of the Red Army hierarchy in 1937. The brilliant commanders who had won the civil war and who had evicted the Army of Intervention in 1922 would have known how to meet the formidable challenge of the Wehrmacht. Hitler and his generals were fully aware of the depleted strength of the Red Army. This information gave Hitler the recklessness to invade a nation that no alien army had ever conquered. General Georgy Zhukhov, Chief of Army Staff, instructed his officers: Wars are no longer declared. The strategy of warfare is above all anchored in the correct thesis that the aggressor can only be beaten through offensive operations. To embolden the Russians, words of Prince Alexander Nevsky, who had repulsed a formidable army of Teutonic Knights in 1245 were recited over radio: “Whosoever shall come to us with the sword shall perish by it. Upon this stood and stands the land of Russia.”
German generals had warned Hitler that occupying Western Russia would create “more of a drain than a relief for Germany’s economic situation.” Hitler disagreed; occupation of Ukraine would supply Germany with agricultural produce while Russia’s Caucasian oilfields would provide Germany the much needed fuel.
Hitler expected Operation Barbarossa to be over swiftly. Germany did not anticipate a protracted campaign continuing into the formidable Russian winter. Clothes for winter had not been supplied to German troops; arrangements for vehicles and lubricants to function in the freezing temperature were not made. Hitler ordered his generals to seize western Russia and Ukraine. However, Hitler and his advisers under-estimated the industrial and military might that Russia had built in ten years, albeit at horrific human cost. They under-estimated Russia’s insurmountable assets: a vast terrain that sucked in invaders until the defenders pursued the invaders: and paralysing winters. He forgot Napoleon’s ill-starred invasion of Russia. He had also entirely misjudged the temper of the Russian people. They would not fight for communism; they would fight for their motherland.So began the invasion of Russia—a struggle that Russians call the Great Patriotic War. It demanded patriotism and sacrifice beyond human endurance.
Some four million soldiers of Germany and her allies attacked Soviet Union along a 2,900 kilometre frontier. Never had one nation deployed such a massive force against another nation. This was augmented by 600,000 armed vehicles and some 700,000 horses. These troops had been indoctrinated with anti-Slavism, with plans for ethnic cleansing and enslavement of Russian people.
On 22nd June 1941 the grim news of the invasion was broadcast to the Russian people by Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov with these words: “…Without a declaration of war, German forces fell on our country, attacked our frontiers in many places… The Red Army and the whole nation will wage a victorious Patriotic War for our beloved country, for honour, for liberty … Our cause is just. The enemy will be beaten. Victory will be ours!”
The siege of Leningrad was one of the aims of Operation Barbarossa. Heavy artillery shelling on the city began on 1st September 1941. All roads to the city were blocked so that fuel and food supplies could not reach the people. The German Luftwaffe dropped leaflets warning Leningrad citizens of impending starvation. Hitler and his generals expected “Leningrad to drop like a leaf.” Never in the history of mankind had such onslaught met such resistance. Food supplies stopped. Germans bombed power stations so there was no electricity and heating. Dwindling food stocks could not be replenished. Rationing was unsuccessful. People brewed broth of leaves and seaweed, ate grease from machinery and then cats and dogs. Millions of seeds at the Plant Research Institute could have staved off deaths for a while. But scientists stubbornly guarded them for future agricultural research. Starving and exhausted, thousands of people died daily in their icy homes or on the roads.Snow covered corpses littered the streets; there was nobody to bury them.
The Red Army fought on the outskirts of Leningrad and recaptured lost positions. Expecting that Leningrad would swiftly surrender, Germany had not made arrangements to encounter the winter. Many died in freezing temperature. When the German forces retreated Russian engineers moved into repair railway lines and sent food supplies over the frozen Lake Lagoda. But the supplies that reached Leningrad were inadequate. In the winter of 1941-42, some 52,000 people died. Though the exact number is not known, it is estimated that about a million people died of starvation during the siege of Leningrad. Never in modern history had an enemy laid siege to a city to starve its citizens and quell them into submission. Those who lived through those 900 odd days could never banish the horrific images of starvation and death. Stalin also showed incredible callousness by not lifting the siege because he wanted the full power of the Red Army to concentrate on Stalingrad—the city that bore his name.
The people of Leningrad were prepared to endure the ordeal rather than surrender to the enemy. They offered another unforgettable spectacle of stoical dignity. In the midst of the siege Dmitry Shostakovich composed his famous 7th or Leningrad Symphony. To still German guns the Russian general defending Leningrad bombed Germany artillery and then broadcast the symphony over the city on loudspeakers. This solemn and stirring symphony stiffened the resistance of the citizens of Leningrad. By the summer of 1942, some of the German forces began retreating from Russia’s western front to concentrate on the newly opened front in Stalingrad.
The failure of Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa was a turning point in the Second World War. Russian victory over Nazi Germany made America and Europe realize that they had now to contend with the formidable power of Soviet Union. No longer could Churchill and his kindred spirits nurse pipe dreams of Russia’s destruction at the hands of Germany. The sagacious statesman President Franklin Roosevelt of the United States realized the imperative of an alliance with Russia. He offered Stalin assistance in the war effort.
The Battle of Stalingrad was the turning point in the Second World War. It was the most brutal battle of the Second World War and the bloodiest battle in the history of warfare. Russian victory in this bloodbath made her a superpower. Her power and influence changed the history of the 20th century.
Achala Moulik is the author of “The Russian Revolution: Storms Across a Century, 1917-2017” published by Authors Upfront. The book is available on Amazon.