Last men standing

Hitler’s attack on Russia on this day 70 years ago was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany, writes Geoffrey Roberts

SEVENTY years ago today Adolf Hitler launched the biggest and most destructive military campaign in history when three million German troops invaded Soviet Russia along a 1,000-mile front.

Operation Barbarossa — the German codename for the invasion of Russia — was the climax of Hitler’s bid to establish Germany as the dominant world power. That bid had begun with the invasion of Poland in September 1939, followed by the German conquest of France in June 1940. By 1941 the German war machine had conquered most of Europe as country after country was invaded or forced to join Hitler’s Axis alliance.

In the west, only Britain, protected by the English Channel and the strength of the Royal Navy and Air Force, remained defiant and undefeated. In the east, the Soviet Union was the last remaining obstacle to German domination of Europe.

“The world will hold its breath,” said Hitler as he reassured his generals that all they had to do was kick the door in and the whole rotten structure of the Soviet communist system would come tumbling down.

The aim of Operation Barbarossa was to conquer Russia in the course of a single Blitzkrieg campaign. At first all went well as the German armies advanced deep into Soviet territory, destroying everything that was thrown at them and surrounding and capturing millions of enemy troops. As early as July 3, general Franz Halder, chief of the German army general staff, noted in his diary: “On my part it would not be too bold to assert that the campaign against Russia has been won in the space of two weeks.” By September, the Germans had captured Kiev, surrounded Leningrad and were ready to advance on Moscow.

Halder’s triumphalism was a little premature and by early August he was beginning to have doubts: “At the beginning of the war we calculated there would be about 200 enemy divisions against us. But already we have counted 360. If we destroy a dozen, the Russians present us with another dozen.”

But it was not just inexhaustible reserves of manpower that thwarted German plans for a quick and easy victory. Soviet defences did not crumble completely. The Red Army fought back and conducted a tenacious defence once it got over the shock and awe of the initial German attack.

In the Brest fortress on the border with German-occupied Poland, 3,000 Soviet soldiers fought almost to the last man. Odessa, the Soviet Navy’s main port on the Black Sea, held out for weeks against an attack by the Romanian 4th army, while its sister port of Sebastopol fought on for another year. Millions of Soviet soldiers were taken prisoner, but tens of thousands more fought their way out of encirclement. The Red Army did not defend passively; it launched numerous counter-attacks, often forcing the Germans to retreat and regroup. The Soviet defence of Kiev held up the German advance on eastern Ukraine for nearly a month. So determined was the Soviet defence of Leningrad that Hitler decided to lay siege to the city rather than capture it by frontal assault.

Hitler’s last chance to win the war in 1941, and thereby avoid a costly war of attrition, came in the autumn when he attacked Moscow with more than a million men. By the end of November, advance units of the German army could see the spires of Moscow’s Kremlin. But in early December, the Red Army launched a counteroffensive that forced the Germans back 100 miles. For a while Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin hoped to reverse Operation Barbarossa and chase the Germans out of Russia altogether, but that proved beyond the capabilities of the Red Army. Not until the end of 1942, with victory at Stalingrad, did the war turn decisively in the Soviet favour.

The initial German successes in Russia were expected of a battle-hardened army that had so easily conquered Poland and France. Also working in the German favour was the factor of surprise. Not so much the surprise of the attack as its weight and effectiveness.

The German attack was not unexpected. It had been signalled for months by the build-up of German forces along Soviet borders. Stalin had a non-aggression pact with Hitler — signed in August 1939, on the eve of the German invasion of Poland — but he did not expect his Nazi counterpart to keep his word.

But Stalin did expect Soviet defences to hold and to buy enough time for the Red Army to prepare a counterattack. This was not unreasonable given that three million troops guarded strongly fortified Soviet frontiers. These defences gave Stalin the confidence to gamble on delaying war with Hitler, even if that meant flying in the face of mounting intelligence of an imminent German attack. Hence, Stalin held back the Red Army’s mobilisation until the very last moment.

“Mobilisation means war,” Stalin told his chief of staff, general Georgy Zhukov, reminding him that Tsar Nicholas’s mobilisation of the Russian Army during the July Crisis of 1914 had precipitated World War I.

Stalin’s illusions about the strength of Soviet defences were shared by his generals, who were shocked by the success of the initial German attack. Zhukov’s efforts to implement plans for counteroffensive action only made the situation worse by making the Red Army’s forward units even more vulnerable to German encirclement.

Eventually, the Red Army learned how to defend effectively, but not before it had suffered astronomical casualties. By the end of 1941 the Red Army had lost nearly 200 divisions in battle and suffered a stunning 4.3 million casualties. But the Soviet Union had survived and begun to turn back the German invasion.

In assessing the historical significance of the failure of Operation Barbarossa, it is important to bear in mind the kind of war the Germans fought in Russia — a war of destruction and extermination, a Vernichtungskrieg. According to Hitler’s Nazi ideology, the Soviet Union was a Judaeo-Bolshevik state under the joint control of his racial enemy the Jews and his political enemy the communists. Nazi ideology also defined the Slavic peoples of the Soviet Union as an inferior race of Untermenschen or sub-humans. Hence, Hitler waged an ideological and racist war in Russia that aimed to kill all the Jews, enslave the Slavs and destroy the communists.

The result was the death of 25 million Soviet citizens, including one million Jews, the first victims of the Holocaust. European Russia was devastated by the German invasion as 70,000 towns and villages were destroyed along with 98,000 collective farms and thousands of miles of roads and railways.

On this 70th anniversary of the German invasion of the Soviet Union the Russians will remind the world that the Red Army saved European civilisation as well as Russia from the Nazis. The Soviets did not win the war on their own, but in alliance with Britain, the US and other allies. As the old saying goes, the British gave time, the Americans gave money and the Russians gave their blood to defeat Hitler. But, as Winston Churchill said, it was the Red Army who tore the guts out of Hitler’s war machine.

To an extent, the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany was pyrrhic — a victory won at too great a cost. That victory also led to a communist takeover in eastern Europe and helped shore up Stalin’s repressive regime. But much worse was the alternative of a triumphant Nazi empire in Europe that would have destroyed western democracy and completed Hitler’s genocide of the Jews.

- Geoffrey Roberts is professor and head of the School of History at UCC. His biography of Marshal Zhukov will be published early next year.

Picture: Victims of the German Wehrmacht at an unidentified Russian location in 1941, uncovered after the German retreat. The attack began the Soviet/German war, which the Germans called Operation Barbarossa. Picture: Berliner Verlag/Archiv/DPA/Corbis

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