USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Phase #2: “Operation Barbarosa” and its Aftermath

The Nazis and the Soviets signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact in August of 1939, clearing the way for the German invasion of Poland and the beginning of WWII. For the Nazis, the benefits were great. It freed the German army to first dispose of Poland and then to calmly turn its focus west to prepare for the spring campaigns against the Low Countries, France and ultimately Great Britain. The pact also ensured that Russia would keep the flow of wheat and oil coming into Germany, thus alleviating the perpetual German fear of material privation, as had happened in WWI. For the Russians, at least in the short-term, the benefits also seemed substantial. Stalin did not want to fight a major war, but used the opportunity to expand Soviet reach to the west. As part of the deal with the Nazis, Stalin took a portion of Poland, ending the twenty-year existence of the reconstituted Polish state. In addition, as Hitler waged war in the West, Stalin moved in and occupied the Baltic states, much to the dismay of his would-be Western allies, who refused to recognize the legitimacy of the move.

Despite the urging of his general staff, Stalin would not accept the growing danger that the Nazi behemoth posed to the sprawling Soviet state. Hitler was always intent on an eventual attack on the communist giant—indeed the defeat of Soviet Russia and the occupation of European Russia was the central war aim of the Nazi state. While the Non-Aggression Pact gave both powers the chance to act with relative impunity on their borders, it also brought these borders into contact. The existence of the massive and rapidly industrializing Soviet giant on the very border of Germany, apart from any ideological considerations, created  conditions for potential war.

Hitlerʼs decision to open up another front in the war by attacking the Soviet Union is seen by historians, rightly, as his fatal military mistake. We need to remember, however, that this was no “mistake” in the strict sense, because Hitler did not consider any possible alternative. To not defeat Stalin’s Russia was totally out of the question, for both tactical and ideological reasons. Tactically, Hitler assumed his powerful army could knock out Russia quickly, that the Russian army would rapidly disintegrate under heavy Blitzkrieg-style fighting just as the French had done. The war against the Bolsheviks, Hitler assumed, would be over before the winter, and therefore there was no pressing need to prepare his forces for a protracted cold-weather campaign. Hitler also assumed that Russiaʼs industrial capacity could not produce an adequate amount of armaments to compete with Nazi tanks, artillery and air power. On the ideological level, Hitlerʼs Nazi philosophy was based on conflict with two perceived historical enemies: the Jews and the Bolsheviks. The Nazis considered the Bolsheviks to be an imperialist power, one bent, like them, on eventual world-domination. Sooner or later, Hitler thought, a clash was inevitable. Why not clash at the most advantageous time for Germany while the Soviet Union was militarily and socially unprepared for war? The collectivization of agriculture in the early 1930s and the purges of anti-Bolsheviks throughout the 1930s had cost millions of Russian lives. It was possible, the Nazis thought, that Bolshevik Russia might be ripe for collapse. Hitlerʼs miscalculation was massive.

The war in the east proved long and brutal rather than short and in Germany’s favor. Having survived the initial Nazi attack, albeit at great costs of territory and lives, Russia could now call on its vast superiority in men and material. Its industrial base in the Ural mountains easily made up for the loss of production in the conquered west. Divisions of the Russian army soon arrived from the east to bolster Russian forces in the west. In the spring of 1942, the Nazis resumed their three-pronged push toward Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Moscow, and south to Stalingrad (a key junction with the Caucasian oil fields). At the all-important Battle of Stalingrad, the Nazi army suffered its worst defeat. The famed German Sixth Army was totally defeated at a cost of half a million casualties and the eventual surrender of the entire force. Combined Russian and Axis casualties at Stalingrad reached 2 million. The Battle of Stalingrad was the turning point of the war. In the coming months, from the fall of 1942 into the spring of 1943 the Russian army launched a massive counterattack that pushed the German lines away from Stalingrad. After an attempted German counter-offensive proved futile, the Russians launched an even more successful offensive push in August 1943, which succeeded over the course of the next year in recovering all of the territory lost in the initial German invasion. The German occupation of eastern Europe and European Russia proved short-lived. And yet it was still long enough for the Nazis to execute their ideological agenda with horrifying results.   

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