Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany’s gigantic invasion of the Soviet Union, commenced on this day 73 years ago. June 22, 1941 was a grave day for every citizen of the Soviet Union, as unimaginable horrors were to follow in the monumental conflict of the Eastern Front. Hitler’s rationale for invading was to satisfy Germany’s perceived need for Lebensraum- or “living space”. In addition to coveting the vast territory and valuable resources of the Soviet Union, Hitler also regarded its Slavic inhabitants as sub-human; and because of this, millions of civilians and Soviet POWs were treated brutally or deliberately starved to death. The Eastern Front, which was begun by Operation Barbarossa, was defined by atrocities on a massive scale.This makes it a distinctly depressing subject to write about, but I feel a sort of duty to bring the Eastern Front to people’s attention. It is always at the forefront of my mind and I personally commemorate many of its anniversaries, and I think it is important to give people the knowledge that may encourage them to do the same.
For a few days prior to June 22, warning signs of the invasion abounded but were all brushed aside by a confident, or perhaps controvert, Josef Stalin. German warplanes were apparently flying a suspicious number of recon sorties over the Soviet border, and a lone Wehrmacht soldier even told his Soviet counterparts the exact date and time of the imminent invasion. The famous Soviet spy, Richard Sorge, also learned of the invasion plans and warned the Kremlin with time to spare. But all these warnings were ignored; and although Stalin himself both feared and denied the prospect of a Nazi invasion, troops at the front were completely caught by surprise when the Germans invaded.
Richard Sorge in 1944; he was arrested by Japanese authorities in late 1941 and then executed 3 years later for espionage. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1985-1003-121/CC-BY-SA
Three giant Wehrmacht Army Groups, their personnel numbering around 3 million men, rolled across the border in one collective, coordinated movement at 0400 hours on June 22. Capitalizing on the shock and disarray of the frontline Soviet units, the Wehrmacht moved quickly into the hearts of Belarus and the Ukraine. So momentous were the German gains, and so outclassed was the Soviet Union’s Red Army, that the Wehrmacht made gains of 500 kilometres in some places in the space of under three weeks. When this is considered, Adolf Hitler’s audacious proclamation does not seem so far-fetched: We need only kick in the door, and the whole rotten edifice will come crashing down.
This map shows the immense gains made by the Wehrmacht in only the first three months of war with the Soviet Union. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Gdr. CC-SA 3.0
Many factors contributed to this calamitous state of affairs for the Red Army. In general, the Wehrmacht was far better-trained and better-equipped. Wehrmacht soldiers on the Eastern Front had been trained for this conflict, while Soviet training (especially in the chaos just after the invasion) was atrociously lacking. The German’s panzers were all meticulously maintained and boasted that famous “German engineering”- meanwhile, the bulk of the Red Army’s vehicles were obsolete and poorly-armoured specimens from the ’30s.
The extensive equipment of the Wehrmacht soldier is evident in this photograph. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-136-0873-20A/Cusian, Albert/CC-BY-SA
The Germans’ advance through the Ukraine was occasionally helped by sympathetic locals, who welcomed the invaders by offering them food and hospitality. Such actions are unsurprising, given that the memory of the horrendous Stalin-engineered famine was still fresh in the population’s mind. These civilians (and likely others, in all parts of the Soviet Union) were eager to escape their often cruel and authoritarian State, and they had no way of understanding the contempt and hate-filled plans that Hitler’s Nazism held for them and their country.
Soviet civilians offering their apparent saviours water. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-208-0031-07/Zoll/CC-BY-SA
Finally, the difference in German and Soviet tactics had a great effect in the early days of the war. Wehrmacht commanders were, quite simply, the best of the best; holding both experience and wisdom. But thanks to the Great Purge of the late ’30s, most of the Red Army’s most capable commanders were already dead. This gave way to young, inexperienced commanders who largely had no idea of how to successfully defend against the Germans.
Whereas the German forces had finesse and precision- utilizing many pincer movements to encircle Soviet Armies and cities with their panzers- the Soviets did not have enough training or coordination to employ such tactics. Unlike that of other WWII armies, a Soviet infantry attack usually meant a simple charge; everyone at once just raced over open ground towards the enemy. Such unfortunate and obsolete actions added to the early losses of the Red Army.
Note the encircling movements of German forces around Minsk and Smolensk. Such movements surprised the Soviets and resulted in enormous numbers of prisoners and captured equipment. Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Operation_Barbarossa.png via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Wailer
Photo of a striking, yet exposed, charge by Soviet riflemen. Attribution: RIA Novosti archive, image #613474/Alpert/CC-BY-SA 3.0
But despite the failings of the Red Army, Soviet soldiers exhibited a degree of resolve and courage that is nearly impossible to fathom. As I have explained in earlier posts such as this one, many individual Red Army soldiers were incredibly patriotic and nearly impossibly brave. German soldiers were surprised by the allegedly sub-human Slavs’ tenacity, and were shocked when their adversaries continued to fight to the death instead of surrendering. The cause for this courage and resolve is something that may be difficult to understand in today’s individualistic society.
Anyone who has seen Soviet wartime propaganda is familiar with the usual fanatic, State-sponsored exhortations that Soviet soldiers and civilians alike were exposed to. Most propaganda posters read things such as, “Glory to the Great Stalin”, or “Death to the Fascist Dogs!” or “Death to the Killers of Mothers and Children”- some even borrowed from Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov’s post-invasion speech, in which he proclaimed, “Our cause is true. The enemy will be beaten. Victory will be ours.” Each of these is aggressive, succinct, and suitably Soviet.
But other posters boast slogans like, “Answer the Motherland with victory”. The latter group reflects the Russian concept of the Motherland and Mother Russia; Rodina or Rodina-Mat. Although this idea is too nuanced to really explain, the great patriotism and self-sacrifice it encouraged during WWII is often what influenced soldiers in their brave deeds. Fear of the State (or admiration of it, alternatively) could only do so much; but Russian soldiers’ love for their Motherland enabled them to do all manner of staggering feats.
Here, the personification of Mother Russia holds the Red Army Oath, taken by every soldier, in a poster by Irakli Toidze. Original image here
It is unfortunate that another contributing factor in Red Army soldiers’ unwillingness to surrender was the brutality from above. Throughout the conflict on the Eastern Front, Stalin issued many ultimatums to his generals- essentially, fight and succeed or be executed- and these trickled down to the regular troops. Even in the early days of the war, “cowards” who retreated or men who attempted surrender were sometimes shot by their comrades.
Regardless of State coercion or the bravery of Soviet soldiers, astounding numbers of prisoners were taken in the months after Barbarossa. The capture of Minsk yielded several hundred thousand prisoners, the majority of whom died within months thanks to the deliberately inhumane conditions of their Nazi imprisonment. Smolensk, which was encircled towards the end of July, spelled the end of several Soviet Armies and yielded another 300,000 prisoners.
A group of sombre Russians surrender. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-020-1268-36/Hähle, Johannes/CC-BY-SA
A column of Soviet prisoners captured at Minsk. Not many of these men would have survived their imprisonment. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1982-077-11/CC-BY-SA
As evidenced solely by the number of prisoners captured in the dawn of the German campaign in the Soviet Union, there was no shortage of resistance for the invaders during Barbarossa. However, the land was vast; and even where resistance was heavier, it was crushed without too much difficulty. Particularly for a few days after June 22, some German units moved nearly unimpeded into Soviet territory.
German infantry, on the very day of the invasion according to the caption, walking into the Soviet Union. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-186-0199-10A/Springmann/CC-BY-SA
Some Germans, apparently from a motorized unit, sizing up the vast terrain of the Soviet Union. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2007-0127/CC-BY-SA
22 June of any year is always a sober day for me. As I’m writing these words, I can hear fireworks outside as my neighbours are no doubt celebrating the return of summer and the longest day of the year. But to me, the fireworks bring no such jubilation- instead, they sound like the artillery and gunfire that bombarded the unwitting frontline troops of the Red Army exactly 73 years ago. For these troops, this day was perhaps the longest and most arduous of their short, scarred lives; and I hope that you will take a moment from your happy summer day to remember them with the gratitude they deserve.
A Russian village, burning and abandoned. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-137-1032-14A/Kessler, Rudolf/CC-BY-SA
One of the many thousands of dead during the first few weeks after Barbarossa. Attribution: Bundesarchiv B 145, Bild-F016196-06/CC-BY-SA
A lone German soldier observes one of his dead adversaries, against the backdrop of a blazing Soviet BT-7 tank. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-020-1268-36/Hähle, Johannes/CC-BY-SA
Bethell, N. (1977). Russia Besieged. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books.
Fowler, W. (2004). Barbarossa: The First 7 Days. Havertown, PA: Casemate.