Recalling Barbarossa, history’s greatest clash

Earlier this week marked the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the largest military operation in human history, yet not a single US newspaper bothered to so much as note the event with a story or news brief.

Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, began on June 22, 1941, as more than 4.5 million troops invaded along a nearly 2,000 mile front that stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.

Operation Barbarossa was the largest military operation in human history in both manpower and casualties, and its failure was a turning point in the Germany’s fortunes.

That no US paper apparently could be bothered devoting a few inches of copy to this monumental engagement, the results of which in no small part set the stage for Cold War and the remainder of the 20th century, is both mystifying and a testament to the insular nature of American society.

Why is Operation Barbarossa significant? It proved to be Hitler’s fatal misstep, the one that cost him the war. Had he taken the USSR, which he nearly did, he would have had pretty much all of Europe under his thumb. 

Instead, Hitler saw his vaunted Wehrmacht ground up by a seemingly endless onslaught of Red Army divisions. In the end, the miscalculation cost him everything.

For that, the nations of the west owe the former Soviets a debt a gratitude that too often goes unremembered.

It didn’t start off that way, however. Barbarossa caught Stalin completely off guard despite considerable intelligence that Hitler was planning an invasion.

The German Wehrmacht enjoyed astounding success in the early weeks of the operation and would sweep through vast tracts of Soviet territory almost to the point of taking Moscow before finally suffering defeats over the winter.

Stalin had done the Soviet Union no favors through his notorious purges of top military leaders in the 1930s and his unwillingness to believe that Hitler might invade the USSR.

The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had signed a non-aggression pact in 1939, essentially giving Hitler the go-ahead to invade Poland. Stalin was sure that Hitler’s forces would not attack the USSR in 1941, Western historians believe.

Stalin’s ruthless purges in the mid-1930s that cut swathes through the Soviet elite took out much of the military leadership who would have been involved in planning defence against the Nazis, leaving the country short of competent military leadership, according to Agence France-Press.

The casualty totals related German-Soviet war between 1941-45 are mind-boggling. Soviet losses would approach 27 million, of whom two-thirds were civilians. 

About 4.3 million Germans and a further 900,000 Axis forces lost their lives either in combat or in Soviet captivity. To put things into context, even today tens of thousands of German military dead are found in former Soviet territory every year.

Aside from the scale of the campaign, what was also unprecedented about this battle of titans was the savagery on both sides, according to The Daily Mail:

This was a bloody feud of epic proportions between the Slavs of Eastern Europe and Aryans of the West, fuelled by an ideological struggle between German Nazism and Soviet Bolshevism. Each saw the other as beasts to be slaughtered without compunction and any ideas of mercy or humanity were abandoned.

Hitler urged his generals to fight ‘a battle of annihilation’ and commanders made it clear that murder, rape and looting were not only allowed, but actively encouraged.

German tanks ploughed through the Red Army defences and then rolled back over the trenches to bury the occupants alive. Prisoners-of-war were shot or left without food, with no choice but to eat each other or starve to death. Fleeing civilians were butchered without a moment’s hesitation.

Also caught in the middle were millions of Jews. Behind the fast-moving German front line as it sped towards the Russian heartland came specialist SS killing groups. They strung up communist officials and herded Jewish men, women and children into execution pits.

Despite the huge advances the Nazis made in the early weeks and months of the invasion, Barbarossa ultimately foundered.

The implacable opposition, in terrain without paved roads, in winter temperatures of minus-45 farenheit, in sweltering summer heat and in monsoon-style downpours. Stalin was eventually able to trade territory for time, switching arms production to beyond the Ural mountains to construct a fighting machine able to crush the forces of Blitzkrieg, writes The Express.

Only recently, several decades after what many Russians still call the “Great Patriotic War,” are people in the former USSR beginning to come to terms with Stalin’s role in the initial debacle. 

Russian society has long been reluctant to criticise Stalin’s reaction but the most-recent anniversary saw an unusual spate of material in the popular press lamenting how the leader had stubbornly ignored persistent warnings of attack, according to Agence France-Presse.

“Soviet intelligence in the last 10 days before the start of war named the date of the Fascist attack precisely or almost precisely,” leading historian Arsen Martirosyan told the mass-circulation Komsomolskaya Pravda daily. “Stalin’s desk was piling up with intelligence reports giving more-or-less precise information about the date of the attack.”

Russian society has only in recent years started to realign its remembrance of the heroism of the Soviet people in the war with the evidence that Stalin’s brutality and naivety greatly handicapped the USSR at the start of the war, the French news service added.

If the Russians can begin to address the idea that their leadership played at least some role in the June 22, 1941, disaster that would rend their society for years to come, perhaps Americans can start to seriously consider the fact that World War II was indeed a group effort, one that likely wouldn’t have been resolved favorably for the Allies without a united push. 

Today, we in the US give great credence to the idea that the Normandy Invasion played a pivotal role in the downfall of Hitler’s Third Reich. It was important, no doubt.

But to put things into context, it’s estimated that approximately 80-85 percent of the German soldiers killed during World War II fell on the Eastern Front.

In other words, the tremendous sacrifices made by the Soviet forces and civilians drained the lifeblood from the German military, ultimately making the defeat of Hitler and Third Reich possible.

Without the Soviets and their willingness to fight on despite incredible losses, all of Continental Europe would have been Hitler’s. He could have then turned his attention back to Great Britain, and after that, who knows what.

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