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Operation Barbarossa
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Operation Barbarossa

Operation Barbarossa (Unternehmen Barbarossa) was the German codename for Nazi Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II. It was to be the turning point of Nazi's fortunes, and its failure would arguably result in the eventual defeat of Germany. The Eastern Front which was opened by Operation Barbarossa would become the biggest theatre of war in World War II, with some of the largest and most brutal battles, terrible loss of life, and miserable conditions for Russians and Germans alike. The operation was named after the emperor Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire.

Table of contents
1 German preparations
2 Soviet preparations
3 The attack of June 22
4 Causes of initial Soviet defeats
5 Outcome
6 See also
7 External link

German preparations

Readers of Hitler's Mein Kampf ("My Struggle") should not have been surprised to see him invade the Soviet Union. In that book, he makes clear his belief that the German people needed Lebensraum ("living space", i.e. land and raw materials), and that it was to be looked for in the East. It was the stated policy of the Nazis to kill, deport, or enslave the Russian population, whom they considered inferior, and to recolonise the land with German stock.

Before Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were on friendly terms, having signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact shortly before the German and Soviet invasion of Poland. It was ostensibly a non-aggression pact in which Germany and Russia had agreed how to divide up Eastern Europe between themselves. The pact surprised the world because of their mutual hostility and their diametrically opposed ideologies. But Hitler had long wanted to conquer western Russia in order to exploit its untermensch Slavic population. So the pact was simply for (mutual) short-term convenience, and the Nazis had no qualms about breaking it.

Stalin's own bloodthirsty reputation made the Soviet Union a tempting target for the Nazis. During the late 1930s, Stalin had killed millions of people during the Great Purge, including large numbers of otherwise competent and experienced military officers and strategists, effectively leaving the Red Army weakened and leaderless. The Nazis often emphasized the brutality of the Soviet regime when targeting the "inferior" Slavs in their propaganda.

Operation Barbarossa was largely the brainchild of Hitler himself. His general staff advised against fighting a war on two fronts. But Hitler considered himself a political and military genius, and indeed at this point in the war he had achieved a whole series of lightning victories against what appeared to be insurmountable odds, while the Generals wanted to prove that they were needed at all. First, his brashness and willingness to take risks, combined with the discipline of his troops and the Blitzkrieg tactics, had won him the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia with hardly a struggle, then Poland, Denmark and Norway with only slightly more trouble. Then he achieved the rapid collapse of the French armies by running through Belgium and around the Maginot Line. The forces of Britain had been driven from French soil and appeared to be holding out in the home country through sheer determination of will. Hitler thought it was time to turn on his former friend in the East, arguing that for the Wehrmacht it was important to strike before the Red Army commenced the foreseen invasion of Germany.

Hitler was overconfident due to his rapid success in Western Europe, as well as the Red Army's ineptitude in the Winter War. He expected victory in a few months and did not prepare for a war lasting into the winter. His troops were not equipped with adequate cold weather gear. He hoped a quick victory against the Red Army would encourage Britain to accept peace terms.

In preparation for the attack, Hitler moved 2.5 million men to the Soviet border, launched many aerial surveillance missions over Soviet territory, and stockpiled vast amounts of material in the East. Yet the Soviets were still taken completely by surprise. This has mostly to do with Stalin's unshakeable belief that Germany would not attack only two years after signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. He also was sure the Nazis would finish their war with Britain before opening a new front. Despite repeated warnings from his intelligence services, Stalin refused to give them credence, believing the information to be British misinformation designed to spark a war between the Nazis and the USSR. Germany also aided in this deception. They told Stalin that the troops were being moved to bring them out of range of British bombers. They also explained that they were trying to trick the British into thinking the Nazis were planning to attack the Soviet Union, while in fact the troops and supplies were being stockpiled for an invasion of Britain. It has been established that communist spy Dr. Richard Sorge gave Stalin the exact launch date; also Swedish cryptanalysts led by Arne Beurling knew the date beforehand.

The ultimate strategy Hitler and his assistants in the German high command decided upon involved three separate army groups assigned to capture specific regions and large cities of the Soviet Union once the invasion began. Army Group North was assigned to march through the Baltics, march into northern Russia, and either take or destroy the city of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). Army Group Center would take the straight line to Moscow, marching through what is now Belarus and through the west-central regions of Russia proper. Army Group South was poised to strike the heavily populated Ukraine region, taking Kiev, continuing eastward toward the steppes of Southern Russia, all the way to the Volga River.

Soviet preparations

The Soviet Union was by no means a weak country. Rapid Soviet industrialization in the 1930s had resulted in industrial output being second only to that of the United States, and certainly much greater than that of Germany. Production of military items grew steadily, and in the pre-war years the economy became more and more militarized.

In 1941 the Soviet army outnumbered the German one by a great margin (although the actual figures remain classified even today), German Tank and planes along with their crews were often far better than those of the Soviet Union, but the Soviets were introducing the new T-34 a tank that would gain an excellent reputation for ruggedness and simplicity along with firepower, armour and mobility, This tank would soon become the Soviet Standard and it would not be until the German PzIVD was upgraded to the PzIVF2 that the Germans would regain superiority in armour.

Soviet propaganda in pre-war years invariably stated that the Red Army was very strong and could easily defeat any aggressor.

All this led Soviet leaders to believe that Germany would not attack the Soviet Union — simply because Germany had no chance to win such a war. So when in the spring of 1941 the Soviet intelligence flooded them with warnings of imminent German strike, the Soviet leaders did nothing to prepare for it.

The attack of June 22

On June 22, 1941, the Germans attacked. The operation encompassed a total troop strength of 3 million men, making it the biggest single land operation ever. While being initially successful — almost reaching Moscow by early December (see Battle of Moscow) — it is often proposed that the fatal design flaw of the operation was the postponement from May 15th because Hitler wanted to intervene against an anti-German overthrow in Yugoslavia. This cut five weeks off the already short Russian summer. However, during the campaign, Hitler ordered the main thrust that had been heading toward Moscow to be diverted southward in order to help the southern army group capture Ukraine. This move delayed the assault on the Soviet capital, although it also helped to secure Army Group Center's southern flank. By the time they turned their sights on Moscow, the mud following the autumn rains and eventually the winter snowfall, ground their advance to a halt. Thus they were prevented from much further gain.

In addition, resistance by the Soviets, who proclaimed a Great Patriotic War in defence of the fatherland, was much fiercer than German command had expected it to be. The border fortress of Brest, Belarus illustrates that unexpected tenacity: attacked on the very first day of the German invasion, the fortress was planned to be captured by surprise within hours. Instead, German forces and the Soviet garrison kept fighting bitterly inside the besieged fortress for an entire month. Meanwhile, on the main front, ever more Soviet conscripts were thrown into suicidal assaults against German positions. Thus, bloody fighting at Smolensk, located on the road to Moscow, delayed the German offensive for several weeks. German logistics also became a major problem, as supply lines became very long and vulnerable to Soviet partisan attacks in the rear. The Soviets carried out a scorched earth policy on any land they were forced to abandon, in order to deny the Germans the use of food, fuel, and buildings on occupied land.

The Germans continued to advance despite these setbacks, however, often destroying or surrounding whole armies of Soviet troops and forcing them into surrender. The battle for Kiev was especially brutal. In mid October, Army Group South seized control of Kiev, and took more than 650,000 Soviet prisoners, many of whom died in Nazi concentration camps. Kiev was later awarded the title Hero City for its heroic defence. During Oct 29 - Oct. 31, the Nazis also rounded up more than 33,000 Jews and sent them to the suburban town of Babi Yar, where they were massacred: (see Holocaust).

Army Group North, which was to conquer the Baltic region and eventually Leningrad, advanced as far as to the southern outskirts of Leningrad by August 1941. There fierce Soviet resistance stopped it. Since capturing the city seemed too costly, German command decided to starve the city to death by a blockade, starting the Siege of Leningrad. The city held out, however, until the Germans were driven back again from the city's approaches in early 1944. It was the first Soviet city to receive the title Hero City.

The decisive turning point of Operation Barbarossa, however, was when Nazi troops of Army Group Centre advanced within sight of the spires of the Kremlin in late 1941. It was as close as they would ever get, for Stalin's troops defended Moscow ferociously in the Battle of Moscow, and drove the Germans back into the frozen wastes of Russia as the winter advanced. Not surprisingly the bulk of the counter-offensive was directed at Army Group Center, which was closest to Moscow. Moscow later also received the honorary distinction of Hero City.

Causes of initial Soviet defeats

The reason that the Soviet Army was so badly defeated in 1941 was simple: they did not expect the German attack and were not prepared for it. Even worse, the largest part of the Soviet Army was concentrated at the German-Soviet border, and so was overrun and destroyed in the first hours of war.

Still the fact that the Soviet Union was able to defeat Germany, even after losing a large part of its population, industrial potential and agricultural lands, proves that the Soviet Union was not weak and Soviet commanders were sufficiently competent.

However, all this caused a shift in Soviet propaganda attitudes. Whereas in prewar years it stated that Soviet army was very strong, already in the fall of 1941 it began to tell people that Soviet army had been weak, that there had not been enough time to prepare for war, that the German attack had come as a surprise etc. All this continues to be preached in Russia's schools today (with the extra embellishment that Stalin's purges of 1930s have destroyed the best officers). At the same time, almost everything concerning the Soviet army in 1939-1941 remains secret even today, many years after the war is over.

A possible alternative explanation is given by Victor Suvorov in the book Icebreaker.


The war at the Eastern Front went on for four years, resulting in 3.6 million German and 12 million Soviet battle deaths, plus another 15-18 million Soviet civilians perished in massacres, diseases, and starvation.

See also

External link