Germany Invades the Soviet Union | Stalin and Roosevelt through 1942 | The Tide Turns | War and Fantasies in 1943 | Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill at Teheran | Britain and the United States bomb Germany | The Last Full Year of War: 1944 | The Yalta Conference | The Final Three Months | Comparing Roosevelt and Hitler
A Soviet Union poster: "Soldier save me from slavery!"
A German paper drive for the war effort.
Belarus, October 16, 1941, Germans doing their "duty" as two Belarusians, one a 17-year-old female, Masha Buskina, on their way to execution. Her sign reads, in Russian and German: "We are partisans and have shot at German soldiers."
Before Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin's military advisors had suggested partial mobilization, but Stalin, working with an analogy about the origins of World War I, would have none of it. He did not want a mobilization of Soviet forces to provoke Germany.
The Soviet Union's defenses were inadequate and, from June 22, 1941, the Germans ripped into Soviet territory rapidly. Within the first week the Germans reached the city of Minsk, two hundred kilometers from the frontier. Stalin was shaken and depressed. He is reported to have felt responsible for the failure at the front. He left his office and withdrew to his country dacha. Stalin was always concerned about his own standing rather than welfare of others, and he must have feared that the successful Germans would bring about his own end. A few days later, his fellow Politburo members arrived, and he suspected that they had come to announce his removal. It was the second time that members of the Politburo could have rid themselves of Stalin, the previous being in 1933, just after Stalin's wife had committed suicide. But Stalin's Politburo colleagues, including Molotov, saw Stalin as their leader. "Why have you come?" asked Stalin. His colleagues announced their proposal to set up a "Supreme Defense Council" with Stalin as chairman. Stalin agreed and pulled himself together.
The Germans invaded the Soviet Union with three million men and less than a superiority in number of tanks. And joining the Germans in the invasion was a total of 500,000 troops from Finland, Romania, Hungary, including one division from Spain. The Germans were better trained than the Soviet forces, better organized and better led. The Germans attacked with 2,700 aircraft, and in the first days of the invasion they destroyed many Soviet aircraft that remained parked in neat rows rather than dispersed.
News of the invasion was greeted with emotion by anti-communists across Europe, in various nations, including some occupied by the Germans. Pope Pius XII, who was adamant in his opposition to Communism and opposed also to Hitler's National Socialists, was moved by the awesome event to speak in a broadcast of the "...magnanimous acts of valor which now defend the foundations of Christian culture.”
Everywhere the Soviet forces were falling back. As the Germans rolled into Belarus and the Ukraine they were greeted by crowds of cheering people and offerings of flowers and bread, a minority perhaps as crowds often are. On August 5, the Germans reached Smolensk, more than 320 kilometers (125 miles) east of Minsk and half way between Minsk and Moscow. Almost 300,000 Soviet soldiers were captured. [note]
Soviet forces were burning crops, destroying houses, filling in wells, leaving as little as possible for the advancing Germans.
Back at his post and believing in his native abilities, Stalin considered negotiating with the Germans. The Germans were uninterested, and this was to remain a secret kept from the Soviet people during and after th war.
Stalin intervened in military decisions and quickly made matters worse for the Soviet armies. He resorted to his habit of attempting to instill discipline through terror. On August 16, 1941, his order number 270 directed that Soviet officers and political workers who fell into German hands were to be considered traitors and their families subject to arrest. The families of enlisted men taken prisoner were to be deprived of state assistance – in other words, rations. Possessing a radio – over which one could hear German propaganda – became a capital offense. In the place of radios, the government broadcast programs over loud speakers in factories and at street corners. Collaborators were to be executed rather than imprisoned and tried in a court of law.
Meanwhile patriotic Russians looked to Stalin for leadership. He was their hero and often referred to as a genius. And Stalin was appealing to that which he believed would inspire the most support against the Germans – not to Marxism-Leninism, of course. It was not time for ideology. Stalin appealed to nationalism. He lifted restrictions on religion, allowing the Orthodox Church to play its traditional role in calling for the defense of Mother Russia's faith. On Stalin's order the Communist publication, the Atheist, was turned into a journal supporting religion.
As the Germans continued their rapid advance, Stalin was sending rapidly gathered, ill-trained and ill-equipped troops to the front. Many had no rifles and were expected to pick up the rifles of fallen soldiers before them. In these months of fighting in 1941, the Soviet Union was to lose four million dead and captured – averaging around 21,000 soldiers per day – human beings with faces, emotions and families. [note] Cutting this figure in half to around 10,500 a day is equivalent to the U.S. losses in the entire Vietnam War every three days. [note]
The loyalty of national minorities had become suspect, including the Volga Germans. These were German speaking people whose ancestors had come to the Volga River area in 1760. There their forefathers had created efficient farms out of wasteland, their success making them targets of resentment by neighboring Russians. The Volga Germans had multiplied, and after the Bolshevik Revolution, a German Volga Republic was one of ten republics in the Russian federation – a republic that was 67 percent German, 20% Russian and 12% Ukrainian. In 1941, most Germans in the Volga area considered themselves loyal to the Soviet Union, but their German roots made them targets of hostility and suspected of being disloyal. In August, Stalin's regime dropped parachutists dressed as German soldiers among the Volga Germans and asked to be hidden until German troops arrived. Villagers who complied were exterminated. On August 28, the German Volga Republic was abolished, and the order went out for mass deportations of all Volga Germans. Six hundred thousand of them were packed into cattle cars for resettlement to western Siberia and northern Kazakhstan. Another 348,000 of German descent were also sent eastward in the same fashion, all of them unceremoniously dumped in wastelands and left to fend for themselves without benefit of tools or government equipment. And thousands died of starvation.
Hitler had said that all he had to do was to kick in the Soviet Union's door and the whole rotten structure would fall down. He had believed that his tanks and mechanized transport would allow him speed that Napoleon had lacked, that his armies would be able to end Soviet resistance within six or seven weeks. Hitler had thought that he knew the Soviet Union, but he had not. His general, Franz Halder, wrote in his diary on August 11 that it was "becoming ever clearer that he underestimated the strength of the Russian colossus not only in the economic and transportation sphere but above all in the military." [note]
Hitler had been dreaming big. Looking beyond the continent, he had looked forward to the world being divided into four blocs. One bloc he had seen as the United States and Latin America. Another he had seen as the British Empire and Commonwealth of Nations. The third had been that of Japan dominating East Asia, and the fourth had been Germany dominating the European continent. He had planned on creating space for Germans in what had been Poland, and he had laid plans to turn the Ukraine into what he called a Garden of Eden populated by Germans. He analogized his expansion eastward with the American frontier -- having read about the heroic expansion of Germanic America expanding against the American Indians. He compared the Slavic peoples with American Indians.
Hitler's plan included extermination of Bolshevism and wiping Moscow and Leningrad from the face of earth. Rather than turn the Slavic peoples he was invading into allies, all of Europe's Slavic peoples were to be a subservient racial minority, with only the simplest of education, enough to be able to read traffic signs and other simple instructions and simple awareness such as knowing the name of the capital of Germany. And for Europe he had planned on the extermination of what he called the Jewish race. The Jews and their cultural influence he saw as his main enemy. Bolshevism he saw as a Jewish phenomenon. [See the Final Solution]
It would have been better for Hitler if he had concentrated on taking control of the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal rather than try to invade the Soviet Union. Doing this would have cut Britain's route to the East, including to India and Australia and perhaps allowed Germany, Italy and his other European allies to link up with Japan. Hitler had a lot of support in the Arab world, who looked forward to Hitler ridding the area of the British, but he kept his commitment to the Mediterranean area at a minimum, believing that North Africa should be his ally Italy's "living space." And in the Middle East was also his French ally – the pro-German regime at Vichy in central France. The British and their friends, however, drove the French out of Syria and Lebanon the same month that Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.
Hitler had a late start in his invasion of the Soviet Union, having postponed it for a couple of months in order to rescue the Italians in their failed efforts east, across the Adriatic Sea. In his attack on the Soviet Union, Hitler sent his forces in three directions, northeast toward Leningrad, east toward Moscow, and southeast into the Ukraine. In mid-July, Hitler slowed his drive toward Moscow by ordering tanks in that drive to turn south to help the drive in the Ukraine. Moscow was the hub of the Soviet rail system, and taking it would have helped the Germans, but Hitler wanted to keep his armies on the flanks moving with the armies in the middle. He must have thought that taking Moscow would be easy enough later.
In the Ukraine, Soviet forces were holding out around Kiev. Stalin gave orders of no retreat. The Germans surrounded and captured 600,000 Soviet troops there – the greatest number of prisoners taken ever.
A special force of Germans were rounding up Jews and exterminating Jews in every town that was overrun. On September 28 and 29, 1941, at Babi Yar, just outside of Kiev, the Germans gathered 33,771 Jews and tossed them into pits.
In September the German advance was slowed by rain. And in October it was slowed by an unusually early winter, with freezing temperatures and a heavy snow. The German advance came to a halt on the outskirts of Moscow in early December. Moscow was being defended by only 90,000 troops, but unknown to the Germans, Soviet forces in reserve were building for a counter offensive, made possible by the Soviet Union's considerable population – more than 170 million, compared to 86 million for Germany and Austria. Stalin decided to stay in Moscow, and civilians attempting to flee eastward from Moscow were shot by Soviet soldiers or police.
According to what had been Hitler's plans, the Germans were supposed to have won the war by now, but the Germans were in an indefensible position and without winter clothing or equipment. Hitler's generals begged him for permission to withdraw to better positions, but Hitler refused. Disgusted by Hitler's attempt at military strategy, the Army's commander-in-chief, Brauchitsch, and three other generals, Rundstedt, Bock, and Leeb, resigned.
Copyright © 2000-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.