Operation Barbarossa or Unternehmen Barbarossa was the code name for Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. It began on June 22, 1941. The operation was named after the 12th century German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa who led the Third Crusade against the Great Saladin to conquer Jerusalem. Hitler’s knowledge of the Crusades was precarious; he didn’t know it was a failure and Barbarossa drowned in a river in Anatolia.
The ideological origins of the invasion can be found in the autobiography of Hitler, Mein Kampf or My Struggle. As early as 1925 Hitler expressed a desire to conquer the newly established Soviet Union because the superior Aryan-German race needed Lebensraum or living space. The reason for this bizarre program was the belief that men of the Slavic race were Untermenschen, or inferior men. Although the historic fate of Germany, Drang Nach Osten (Driving East) had already suffered several defeats over the centuries, Hitler was determined to conquer the Slavic lands, enslave his people, and repopulate Russia with the Teutonic people.
There was no animosity between Russia and Germany in 1918. Germany was not part of the Intervention Army trying to defeat the new Soviet state. And the Soviet Union was not a signatory to the Treaty of Versailles which imposed punitive reparations on Germany. The Germans felt no antipathy towards the Russians. The two peoples fought against poverty.
The Soviet Union’s spy network informed the Kremlin in December 1940 that Hitler had ordered his generals to defeat Soviet Russia with a surprise invasion.
In early 1941, the Soviet and American intelligence services repeatedly warned Stalin of an impending German invasion. Russian double agent Victor Sorge informed Stalin of the exact date of the attack. Stalin knew that such an attack was imminent, but decided not to escalate the growing tension with Germany in order to buy time to fortify the Red Army.
There was a frantic deployment of German troops and tanks on Russia’s western borders. In response to this, the Soviet Army deployed 2.7 million troops comprising 177 divisions on its western border. The army had 10,394 tanks, nearly 44,000 field guns and mortars. More than 8,000 fighter jets have occupied air bases at the border.
Hitler and his generals were fully aware of the exhaustion of the forces of the Red Army. This information gave Hitler the recklessness to invade a nation that no foreign army had ever conquered. General Georgy Zhukov, army chief of staff, instructed his officers: wars are no longer declared. The war strategy is above all anchored in the correct thesis that the aggressor can only be defeated by offensive operations. To embolden the Russians, the words of Prince Alexander Nevsky, who had driven back a formidable army of Teutonic knights in 1245, were recited over the radio: “Whoever comes to us with the sword will perish by it.” This is where the land of Russia stood and stands.
Hitler expected Operation Barbarossa to end quickly. Germany had not foreseen a prolonged campaign continuing into the formidable Russian winter. Winter clothing had not been supplied to German troops; arrangements have not been made for vehicles and lubricants to operate in freezing temperatures. Hitler ordered his generals to capture western Russia and Ukraine. However, Hitler and his advisers underestimated the industrial and military might that Russia had built in 10 years.
They underestimated Russia’s insurmountable strengths: vast terrain that sucked in invaders until defenders pursued invaders: and crippling winters. He forgot about Napoleon’s unfortunate invasion of Russia. He had also totally disregarded the character of the Russian people. They would not fight for communism; they would fight for their homeland.
So began the invasion of Russia, a struggle the Russians call the Great Patriotic War. It required patriotism and sacrifice beyond human endurance. Some four million German troops and their allies attacked the Soviet Union along a 2,900 kilometer border. Never has a nation deployed such massive force against another nation. This was augmented by 600,000 armed vehicles and some 700,000 horsepower.
On June 22, 1941, the grim news of the invasion was broadcast to the Russian people by the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov with these words: ââ¦ Without a declaration of war, the German forces fell on our country, attacked our borders. in many placesâ¦ The Red Army and the whole nation will wage a victorious patriotic war for our beloved country, for honor, for freedomâ¦ Our cause is just. The enemy will be defeated. The victory will be ours!
The siege of Leningrad was one of the objectives of Operation Barbarossa. Heavy artillery bombardments on the city began on September 1, 1941. All roads to the city were blocked so that fuel and food supplies could not reach people. The German Luftwaffe dropped leaflets warning the citizens of Leningrad of impending famine. Hitler and his generals expected “Leningrad to fall like a leaf”.
The Red Army fought on the outskirts of Leningrad and retook the lost positions. Expecting Leningrad to surrender quickly, Germany had not made arrangements for the winter. Many died in freezing temperatures. When the German forces withdrew, Russian engineers set out to repair the railroad tracks and sent supplies to the frozen Lagoda Lake. But the supplies which reached Leningrad were insufficient. During the winter of 1941-1942, some 52,000 people died.
Although the exact number is not known, it is estimated that around one million people starved to death during the siege of Leningrad. Never in modern history has an enemy besieged a city to starve and subdue its citizens. Those who lived through those 900 odd days could never banish the horrific images of starvation and death. The people of Leningrad were ready to endure the ordeal rather than surrender to the enemy.
Hitler’s failed Operation Barbarossa marked a turning point in World War II. Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany made America and Europe realize that they now had to face the formidable power of the Soviet Union. The shrewd statesman, US President Franklin Roosevelt, understood the imperative of an alliance with Russia. He offered Stalin his help in the war effort.
The Battle of Stalingrad marks the turning point of World War II. It was the most brutal battle of WWII and the bloodiest battle in the history of war. The Russian victory in this bloodbath made her a superpower. His power and influence changed the history of the 20th century.
(Achala Moulik is the author of “The Russian Revolution: Storms Across a Century, 1917-2017” published by Authors Upfront.)