Just before dawn on 22 June 1941 the largest land invasion in the history of the world began. Over three million German soldiers and their allies pushed forward in three massive thrusts into the Soviet Union. Army Group North, commanded by Field Marshal Leeb, headed for the Baltic States and Leningrad; Army Group Centre, led by Field Marshal Bock, pushed straight into the Soviet Union on the Minsk/Smolensk/Vyazma axis; and Army Group South, under Field Marshal Rundstedt, advanced into the rich agricultural land of Ukraine.
In retrospect, given that it was the decision to invade the Soviet Union that was largely to lead to the German defeat in the Second World War, it’s easy to see why Hitler is seen today as almost insane for gambling on victory over Stalin. But that was not how it was seen at the time. The German leadership had been buoyed by the victory over France the previous year, and the Red Army seemed a much less serious adversary than the French. After all, hadn’t the Soviets performed badly against the Finns in the winter war the year before? And so, as a result, the view of many of the German High Command was summed up by General Jodl, who said: ‘The Russian colossus will be proved to be a pig’s bladder. Prick it and it will burst.'i
And this confidence that the Germans could win the war against the Soviet Union was shared by analysts in other countries. ‘The American intelligence forces thought that this [war] would [last] between three and six weeks,’ says Professor Sir Ian Kershaw. ‘They reckoned that the Red Army was in no position to withstand the Wehrmacht. And British intelligence also thought this was a foregone conclusion and the Germans would win in the Soviet Union. So nobody really at that time, inside or outside Germany, thought that the Soviet Union would withstand this assault from so powerful a force.’
Hitler, of course, had long had a deep desire to confront the Soviets. ‘The aim was there from the 1920s, the mid-1920s at the latest, that Germany would have to tackle the Soviet Union to gain territory,’ says Sir Ian. ‘That was an idea which seems to have been planted in Hitler’s head no later than about the end of 1922, the first time that it occurs, this idea. By 1926 when he finished the second volume of Mein Kampf that idea is plainly there, and the next three years – two or three years – he speaks repeatedly about this idea of acquiring space, living space, and so that is an idea that’s there ideologically. And it fits, of course, into the race idea as well, the idea of destroying the Jews who are, in his warped vision, the power behind Bolshevism – so you destroy Bolshevism, you destroy the Jews and you acquire living space all in the same activity. So that’s the ideological aim. But the political, military decision came much later and that decision comes more or less immediately following the great victory over France in 1940.
'So already by the end of June and beginning of July 1940 Hitler’s talking in private to his leading generals about the feasibility of this. By the 31st of July 1940 he gets his generals together at his alpine retreat, the Berghof near Berchtesgaden, and he announces to them that they must prepare for an invasion of the Soviet Union the next year. Even that isn’t the actual decision, because it is an indication of serious intent for which then various planning moves were made subsequently. But that was converted then into a military directive only in December 1940, so that basically from December 1940 you could say that the points had been switched to an attack on the Soviet Union the following spring, and from then on it was very difficult to diverge from that. And even then the actual decision [to invade], the initial decision from May  was then postponed to June, so you’ve got a whole series of steps. But, essentially, I’d say it was in the summer of 1940 [that Hitler militarily decided on an invasion of the Soviet Union] and there the crucial thing was if we’re not going to get Britain to the conference table how are we going to get them out of this war? And Hitler had this notion, which sounds really odd today, but the idea that he put forward: we defeat London via Moscow, knock out the Soviet Union in a quick blitzkrieg war, take about four or five months, by the end of the year we’ll destroy the Soviet Union, Britain will then be bereft of its only potential ally in Europe and the Americans will now keep back to their own hemisphere. So by another route we will have won the war.’
Hitler’s practical justification for the invasion of the Soviet Union – ‘we defeat London via Moscow’ – may have had a bizarre logic to it at the time, but, as Professor Adam Tooze says, once the Nazis began to think hard about the ‘operational logic’ of Operation Barbarossa (the code name for the invasion) they found that, ‘defeating Russia is a complex business. You can, indeed, inflict military defeats on the Russians, but whether you can actually comprehensively defeat the Russian state, which is something that they actually also failed to do in 1918, is a far more open question. Fundamentally, when they start to think hard about the Barbarossa Operation they realise that they have to inflict a really all-encompassing military defeat, as they had just done on France, on the Red Army, but within a limitless geographical space. And hence the sort of totemic significance of the Dnieper/Dvina River Line where all of the operational thinking has essentially to achieve its ultimate outcome within the 500 kilometre depth of the first wave of the invasion. Beyond that, frankly, the German plans quite rapidly begin to lose their coherence. Which is also what Ludendorff and Hindenburg experienced in 1918, that you can win in western Russia but whether that really allows you to establish all-encompassing dominance over the entire expanse of Russia is a completely different question….’
And, crucially, this was to be a very different war from the one fought in Western Europe. ‘The general notion about the war in the East was that one was going to fight a war against a Bolshevik regime that was ruled by ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’, as it was called,’ says Professor Omer Bartov, ‘so it was ruled by Jews. And that the people ruled by this regime were Slavs who were generally considered to be ‘Untermenschen’ or sub-humans. So the general view of that war was that it would be, as Hitler called it, a war of ‘keine Kameraden’, a war in which there would be no comrades in arms. It would not be fought according to the rules of war as the German army itself had followed to a large extent during the fighting in the West, but rather a war of extermination, a war in which one side would have to entirely eradicate the other in order to win. But the fact of the matter is that the German army marched into the Soviet Union with very specific orders as to how to behave, despite what German generals said in their memoirs after the war. These orders were handed down to the smallest units; soldiers were aware of them. So, for instance, the Commissar Order basically gave directions that every Soviet Commissar who fell into German hands should be taken aside and shot without trial, without hearing, without anything, just because they had a red star on their cap. The same was seen to a greater extent with crimes regarding the [Soviet] prisoners of war, and the German army’s own way of planning war. The German war plan was for battles of encirclement – expecting and anticipating large numbers of prisoners of war. Then the question would be what do you do with these prisoners of war? And what they did with them was practically nothing, they just surrounded them with barbed wire and let them die, or they marched them, having often taken off their boots or their coats and marched them hundreds of miles to the rear during which they were hardly fed, hardly clothed, hardly sheltered and they died in vast numbers. So there was clearly a view that in this war the kind of rules that applied to and had been applied to wars in the past or even during that war would not apply at that front.’
German economic planners even anticipated mass starvation across the occupied Soviet Union as a result of the invasion. The Wehrmacht central economic agency stated on 2 May 1941 that ‘the entire German army’ would have to be ‘fed at the expense of Russia.’
As a consequence, ‘Thereby tens of millions of men will undoubtedly starve to death if we take away all we need from the country.’ii Another economic document, dated 23 May says explicitly that ’30 million people in the northern part of the Soviet Union might die of starvation’ as a direct consequence of the Nazi policy of taking away their food.iii
‘One essential element is no doubt that the Germans are convinced that this kind of war is being waged against them,’ says Professor Tooze of the German plan to starve the population of the occupied Soviet Union. ‘It is common sense amongst Germans of all political dispositions in the 1920s, for instance, that the British blockade imposed on Germany in World War One killed 600,000 to 750,000 people, mainly women and children. So the Germans understand the war in a very comprehensive sense and as one that is bent on indiscriminate annihilation by both sides and without distinction, necessarily, between the West and the East. They experienced themselves as victims of an annihilatory war in World War One… because food is seen as this fundamental variable. Without it the home front can’t survive, and if the home front doesn’t survive Germany will become victim to yet another effort by the West to starve it into submission. And so what you see in the rhetoric of 1940-42 is this sort of inverting move where we say ‘somebody’s going to starve but it isn’t going to be us this time’. And that, I think, is an absolutely fundamental rhetorical device. Furthermore, we know that this had persuasive power because unlike the Holocaust which, as generations of historians have shown, is euphemised about, it’s not spoken about openly, the Hunger Plan is explicitly documented in instructions issued to the German occupying forces.’
It was to be no accident, therefore, that in this war of ‘annihilation’ the Soviets would suffer a death toll of 27 million people, nor that it would be in the context of this conflict in the East that the Nazis’ so called ‘Final Solution’ would emerge in its full exterminatory form.
i Quoted in Laurence Rees, The Nazis: A Warning from History, BBC Books, 2005, p. 158
ii Quoted in Laurence Rees, Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution’, BBC Books, 2005, pp. 67-68
iii Ibid., p. 68
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