On June 22, 1941 Operation Barbarossa, the German attack upon RUssia was launched. Over three million Germans poised on the border suddenly and ruthlessly instituted a military campaign that was without question, the largest in history. The attack on Pearly Harbor that so shocked the US a few months later was a mere fleabite in comparison. And for the next few years this war on the “Eastern Front” would completely consume the efforts of Stalin and his subjects. In the end, they would emerge victorious, but the cost would be high, very high.
It was a surprise attack that calm Summer day along the Polish border when hundreds of pieces of German field artillery opened up for the initial bombardment preceding the “blitzkreig” or “lightning war”- amassive movement of planes, tanks, and infantry. The earlier conquest of France and the low countries had been a mere rehearsal.
Stalin, like Chamberlin, and many others, had been fooled by Herr Hitler two years earlier when they had made a pact that sliced Poland down the middle with the Germans taking the Western half and the Soviet Union the Eastern half. The poor Poles never had a chance. Stalin, in spite of his raging paranoia that sent millions of his countrymen to artic Gulags, was inexplicably and astonishingly unafraid of Hitler. Had he never read MEIN KAMF, Hitler’s manifesto published years earlier in which he made quite clear his ultimate goal of “Lebensraum”, the Manifest Destiny of the German people to spread out and go East? Apparently not. In his book Hitler also made no secret of his feelings about COmmunism and the inherent inferiority of the Slavic people the their ultimate status as servants of the Teutonic race. Still, Stalin ignored all this and in doing so nearly saw the conquest of his empire.
And so the war that had come to something of a standstill in the West after the German defeat over the skies of Britain, exploded into something gigantic on the Polish border seventy years ago this month.
Nearly all observors predicted the defeat of the Soviet Union at the time. Over the remainder of the Summer and unto the early Fall, German advances across the steppes of Russia were relentless as the Soviet army seemed to melt away in their path. So confident of success were the Germans that their soldiers had not been issued Winter clothing. It was assumed that they would be safely billeted in homes and buildings in Moscow by the time the snows fell in late October. Though it the end it was, of course, poor planning and overconfidence on the part of the Germans, it was not apparent to them at the time. They were winning and the Russians seemed to be able to do little to stop them.
It is simplistic to say that the Russian winter defeated the Germans. BUt it did halt the intial German advance, giving the stunned and beleagered Russians a chance to organize a proper defense and launch their first real counterattack. Later in the Spring of 1942, the German offensive continued and once again it appeared that the Soviet Union was going down. But things had changed somewhat. The Russians had a new friend, the US, and we were managing to get thousands of tons of supplies, including vehicles and planes to them. By early 1943 the Germans were handed their first major defeat in that campaign at Stalingrad. The tide had turned.
The greatest help given to the Soviets however, was the opening of the second front with the invasion of Normandy, three long years after the initiation of hostilities in the East. Historian Stephen Ambrose argues that had that not occured, there was always the real possibility that Stalin and Hitler could have sign a treaty and gone back to the old 1939 lines. But the Germans could not sustain a real two-front war and everyone knew it. WIth D-Day, the battle that AMbrose called the most decisive of the war, the fate of Nazi Germany was sealed once and for all.
When the casualties were counted at war’s end, it was a toss up as to whether the Chinese or the Soviets had lost more people. THough historians are much fuzzier on full extent of the sufferings of the Chinese under the Japanese, it seems that roughly twenty million Soviet citizens perished, or about forty to forty five of them for every AMerican that died. More Russians would die in one campaign, the siege of Leningrad, than AMericans would die in the entire war-a staggering comparison. ANd of course there was the Holocaust. About three million Russian Jews would perish.
And it all began seventy years ago this month, the largest military campaign history, when Nazi Germany bit off more than it could chew, the invasion of the Soviet Union, a campaign that nearly suceeded.