Never has a leader so catastrophically misjudged the character of an enemy as Hitler misjudged the Soviet Union and its people prior to launching his invasion of the country on June 22, 1941.
Hitler and other top Nazis were convinced that the Soviet Union would crumble under the weight of the largest military operation ever mounted, codenamed Operation Barbarossa. German and Axis forces comprising 4 million men, 3,600 tanks, over 4,000 aircraft, and 46,000 artillery pieces attacked the Soviet Union along a 2,900-kilometer front from the Baltic in the north to the Black Sea in the south.
Hitler’s grand ideological project of colonizing Eastern Europe, granting the German and German-speaking peoples so-called ‘lebensraum’ (living space), destroying in the process the ‘degenerate’ and ‘inferior’ Slav peoples, untermenschen, while crushing the threat of ‘Jewish Bolshevism’ to his vision of a racially pure Aryan Europe, was now under way. From the outset it was to be a war of annihilation in which millions would be slaughtered.
Many Western historians have attempted, when interpreting this aspect of the Second World War to represent it a struggle between two equally monstrous totalitarian systems. This is of course completely false – a blatantly revisionist and ideological attempt to undermine the role of the Soviet and Russian people in crushing fascism in the interests not only of themselves, their country and culture, but also in the interests of humanity as a whole.
The Soviets had been warned that Hitler was planning an invasion. Under no illusions about the motives of the fascist dictator, the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, signed two years earlier between both countries, wasn’t so much a pact cementing friendly relations between the two rival powers, as a temporary deferment of future hostilities.
Soviet strategy in signing the pact was to buy the time necessary to prepare for the inevitable war to come. Soviet weaponry and military hardware in many categories more than matched its German counterpart at the time of the invasion, in particular when it came to artillery and tanks, with Soviet industrial output second only to the United States and on a par with Germany. What they lacked was advanced aircraft, communications systems, sufficient training (especially of pilots), and the integration of armor with infantry and aircraft to match the German tactical formations.
At the time of the invasion, the Soviets were rapidly modernizing to catch up, especially after the fall of France, where German blitzkrieg tactics contrasted sharply with the static lines of defense that were employed by the French. But these reforms were still to be completed by June 1941.
Another reason for signing the non-aggression pact was to prevent the possibility of being isolated by the imperialist powers of Western Europe. The policy of non-intervention that both France and Britain had followed during the Spanish Civil War had left Moscow in no doubt that the allied camp was soft on fascism and the explicitly anti-communist objectives that lay at its heart. Further confirmation of the accommodation of the West to fascism from the point of view of the Soviets came with the signing of the Munich Agreement between Germany, Italy, France and Britain in September 1938, ratifying Hitler’s annexation of the German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland, without the prior agreement of the Czech government.
Moreover, the Soviet Union had a mutual military assistance treaty with Czechoslovakia at the time of the annexation, as did France, leading the Soviet government to draw the logical conclusion that the West was now actively colluding with Hitler in his expansionist aims in Europe and that the ultimate aim of the parties involved in the Munich Agreement was a future attack on the Soviet Union. This concern compelled the Soviets to do something to drive a wedge between the fascist and imperialist powers of Europe.
The scale of Barbarossa was matched by its audacity. German and Axis forces were split into three component parts – Army Group North, which would secure the Baltic: Army Group Center, which would drive toward Moscow: and Army Group South, whose
objective was securing the coal and oil rich regions of the Ukraine and the Caucasus. The primary focus of the initial German advance was the destruction of the Soviet forces arrayed against them, which would be achieved by a series of giant encirclements in some of the most outstanding feats of military planning and maneuvers ever undertaken.
Early German successes were nothing short of astounding. By the 17th day Army Group Center, led by General von Bock and the main thrust of the German invasion, had taken over 300,000 prisoners, destroyed over 2,000 Soviet tanks, 1,400 artillery pieces, and decimated Soviet aircraft, mostly while they were still on the ground. This was achieved during the drive towards Minsk and Smolensk, preparatory to destroying the Soviet armies facing them in giant encirclements. Army Group Center’s overriding objective was Moscow, but Hitler’s fateful decision to divert Panzers from von Bock to Army Groups North and South seriously delayed the push towards Moscow and allowed the winter to take its course and bog down the German advance, subsequent to it being turned back at the gates of Moscow by a massive Soviet counter-offensive, beginning on December 5, 1941.
By then, the Red Army had regrouped and was benefiting from the effective leadership of men such as Zhukov, Konev, Rokossovsky and Vasilevsky. Stalin, unlike Hitler, wisely allowed his generals to prosecute the war without undue interference after first setting out, under the auspices of the State Defense Committee (GKO), the military objectives. This was to prove a significant factor in the eventual Soviet victory.
In parts of Ukraine, Latvia, and Estonia, the Nazis were supported by local collaborators, with many joining the ranks of specially organized Waffen SS units such as the Latvian, Estonian and Tatar Legions, and the Kaminski Brigade. These units were mostly assigned to anti-Partisan operations and were involved in some of the most brutal atrocities committed in Nazi occupied territory. The worst of these was the massacre of 30,000 Jews at Babi Yar, a ravine on the outskirt of Kiev, by Nazi SS Einsatzgruppen units and their Ukrainian collaborators in September 1941.
The vast majority of people within the Soviet Union, however, mobilized to resist the Nazi onslaught with truly remarkable results. Entire armaments factories were dismantled in the face of the German advance and transported to the rear, where they were reassembled and production resumed – in many cases before the roofs had even been re-fitted. As for the partisans, these were an essential part of the Soviet war effort. They were made up of men and women, mostly ordinary citizens, and caused havoc behind enemy lines. Indeed, so much so that the Nazis were forced to divert considerable resources and men to try and deal with them.
Stalin’s decision not to abandon Moscow, as advance units of the Wehrmacht reached the outskirts of the city, was an inspired one, raising the morale of the people and the troops as they prepared to defend the capital. In an act of spectacular defiance, the Soviet leader staged a public review of fresh Red Army detachments that had arrived to join the defense of Moscow a day before the Soviet counter-offensive began. From Red Square they marched straight to the front and into battle.
The huge losses suffered by the Soviet Union in their struggle against the Nazi Germany were testament to the stakes involved. Hitler was wrong in his belief that the Soviet Union would crumble the same as the French had before them. Instead, its people mobilized to an extent unparalleled in history, while the Red Army succeeded in breaking the might of the Nazi war machine. In the words of the German Army Chief of Staff, General Franz Halder, in 1941: “The Russian colossus…has been underestimated by us…whenever a dozen divisions are destroyed the Russians replace them with another dozen.”
The events spawned by Operation Barbarossa shaped the world for decades to come. If Hitler had succeeded in conquering the Soviet Union, fascism would have descended like a black shroud over the whole of Europe with untold consequences. Britain would have been hopelessly isolated and left struggling to hold out even with the entry of the United States into the war later that year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The huge natural resources available to the Germans would have given its military capability a massive boost, while strategically they would have been able to link up with the Japanese and help them with materiel and desperately needed oil for the war in the Pacific. Axis allies such as Italy, Rumania and Hungary, meanwhile, would have emerged stronger and more emboldened in their attachment to the fascist cause.
This is why it is true to state that notwithstanding the role played in the Second World War by the Western allies, without the huge sacrifices made by the people of the Soviet Union fascism in Europe would not have been defeated.