On June 22, 1941, Germany launched its invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II, dubbed Operation Barbarossa. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler predicted a quick victory, but after the initial success the brutal campaign dragged on and ultimately failed due to strategic blunders and harsh winter conditions, as well as determined Soviet resistance and attrition. suffered by German forces.
German-Soviet non-aggression pact
In August 1939, Germany signed a pact with the Soviet Union, then led by Joseph Stalin, in which the two nations agreed not to take military action against each other for a period of 10 years. Given the history of the bitter conflict between the two nations, the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact surprised the world and dismayed France and Britain, who had signed their own accord with Hitler’s regime to see him raped when German troops invaded Czechoslovakia earlier that year.
Hitler wanted to neutralize an existing mutual defense treaty between France and the Soviet Union and ensure that the Soviets remained ready when Germany invaded its next target: Poland. The pact included secret plans to divide Poland into spheres of influence, with Germany annexing the western half of the country and the Soviet Union to the east.
Hitler heads for an invasion of the Soviet Union
On September 3, 1939, two days after the invasion of Poland by Nazi forces, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany. After eight months of the so-called bogus war, Germany launched its blitzkrieg (lightning war) across Western Europe, conquering Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France in just six weeks from May 1940.
With France defeated and only Britain standing against Germany in Europe, Hitler turned to his ultimate goal: the expansion of Germany to the east and Lebensraum. (living space) that would ensure the survival of the German people. By definition, this required the defeat of the Soviet Union and the colonization of its territories, especially resource-rich Ukraine, by “Aryan” Germans rather than its native Slavic population, whom Hitler viewed as racially inferior.
By the end of 1940, Hitler had issued the Führer’s Directive 21, an order for Germany’s planned invasion of the Soviet Union. Dubbed Operation Barbarossa – after the nickname of the powerful medieval Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I (1122-1190) – the invasion called on German troops to advance along a line running north-south from the port of Archangel at the port of Astrakhan on the Volga. River near the Caspian Sea.
Beginning of Operation Barbarossa – June 1941
Hitler hoped to repeat the success of the blitzkrieg in Western Europe and achieve an early victory over the immense nation he saw as Germany’s sworn enemy. On June 22, 1941, more than 3 million German and Axis troops invaded the Soviet Union along an 1,800-mile-long front, launching Operation Barbarossa. It was the largest German invasion force of the war, representing around 80% of the Wehrmacht, the German armed forces and one of the most powerful invading forces in history.
Despite repeated warnings, Stalin refused to believe that Hitler was planning an attack, and the German invasion caught the Red Army off guard. With a three-pronged attack on Leningrad in the north, Moscow in the center, and Ukraine in the south, the German panzer divisions (tanks) and the Luftwaffe (air force) helped Germany quickly gain an advantage against the Soviet troops numerous but poorly trained. On the first day of the attack alone, the Luftwaffe managed to bring down more than 1,000 Soviet planes.
German forces first moved rapidly along the vast front, capturing millions of Soviet soldiers. The Einsatzgruppen, or armed SS death squads, followed in the army’s wake, searching for and killing scores of civilians, especially Soviet Jews. Hitler’s directives for the invasion included the commissioner’s order, which authorized the immediate execution of all captured enemy officers. Many Soviet prisoners of war (prisoners of war) were also killed immediately after their capture, another practice that violated international war protocols.
While achieving territorial gains, the German forces also suffered heavy losses, as the Soviets’ numerical advantage and the strength of their resistance proved to be greater than expected. At the end of August, when the German Panzer divisions were only 220 miles from the Soviet capital, Hitler ordered – despite protests from his generals – that the campaign against Moscow be delayed in favor of a concentration on Ukraine to the south.
Kiev fell to the Wehrmacht at the end of September. In the north, the Germans managed (with the help of the Finnish allies) to cut Leningrad off from the rest of Russia, but they were not strong enough to take the city itself. Instead, Hitler ordered his forces to starve Leningrad into subjugation, beginning a siege that would end up lasting around 872 days.
In early October, Hitler ordered the launch of Operation Typhoon, the German offensive against Moscow. This delay had given the Soviets time to strengthen the defense of their capital with around 1 million troops and 1,000 new T-34 tanks. After a successful initial assault, the muddy autumn roads – known as Rasputitsa, or quagmire season – literally stalled the German offensive outside of Moscow, where they collided with enhanced Russian defenses.
In mid-November, the Panzer divisions made a final attempt to surround Moscow, less than 12 miles from the city. But reinforcements from Siberia helped the Red Army repel the attack, halting the German offensive for good as brutal winter conditions arrived. Soviet forces launched a surprise counterattack in early December, putting the Germans on the defensive and forcing them to retreat.
The failure of Operation Barbarossa
Despite its territorial gains and the damage inflicted on the Red Army, Operation Barbarossa failed in its primary objective: to force the Soviet Union to surrender. Although Hitler blamed the winter weather conditions for the failure of the Moscow offensive, the entire operation suffered from a lack of long-range strategic planning. Counting on a quick victory, the Germans had failed to set up adequate supply lines to cope with the vast distances and difficult terrain.
They had also underestimated the strength of the Soviet resistance, which Stalin had ably encouraged by his calls to defend “Mother Russia”. Hitler’s Commissioner’s Order and other ruthless behavior on the part of the Germans also served to solidify the Red Army’s resolve to fight to the end.
The fighting was far from over on the Eastern Front and Hitler ordered another major strategic offensive against the Soviet Union in June 1942. Thanks to similar obstacles they ultimately failed, the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943 helping to turn the tide in a decisive way. to the Allied Powers during World War II.
Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s failure in the Soviet Union. Imperial War Museums.
Anthony Beevor, “Operation Barbarossa: Why Hitler’s Invasion of the Soviet Union Was His Biggest Mistake.” History Extra, March 3, 2021.
Norman stone, World War II: a brief history. (Basic Books, 2013).