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Eastern FrontJuly 1941

Early Nazi success

How successful was the initial invasion of the Soviet Union?
Given their eventual catastrophic defeat, it is easy to forget that initially it seemed as if Hitler and his troops were in sight of victory.

Video Transcript

Commentary: From the beginning, the Nazis were wildly optimistic about their chances in this war.

Professor Sir Ian Kershaw: At the time, Hitler thought five months would do it. Goebbels thought four months. Some of the generals thought less than that. But also the American intelligence forces thought this would be between three and six weeks they reckoned with - that the Red Army was in no position to withstand the Wehrmacht. And British intelligence also thought this was a fore-gone conclusion that the Germans would win in the Soviet Union.

Words of Albert Schneider (German soldier): We thought it was a doddle. The Russians will all defect in droves or will be taken prisoner and detained in a camp somewhere. We will all have a splendid life and the war will be over in six months, a year at most. Nothing can happen to us - we’re the victorious troops. And it went well and there were soldiers who advanced singing! It is hard to believe but it’s a fact.

Commentary: Within one week of the invasion the Germans were threatening Minsk, the capital of the Soviet republic of Belorussia. It was one of the quickest advances in history. In Moscow, the Soviet capital, Stalin and the rest of the Soviet leadership tried to work out what was happening on the front line. At a meeting in Moscow on 29th June Stalin meet his generals, including Georgy Zhukov, and was devastated to learn just how bad things were.

Simon Sebag Montefiore: And there’s just this terrible moment when Stalin just loses control, it must have been an extraordinary sight. And he just shrieks at them and Zhukov actually bursts into tears. Not just because he’s frightened of Stalin, that was part of it of course, but just the fact that they actually realise they are facing a catastrophe, an incredible, colossal catastophe never, ever suffered before by Russia, ever. His essential mistake was to think that Hitler was like him, and that Hitler would never launch an invasion of Russia while he still had the British empire, the huge powerful British empire, undefeated at his back. 

Commentary: But while the invasion appeared to be going well for the Germans, there was a hidden problem.

Professor Adam Tooze: Fundamentally when they start to think hard about the 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. They have to win the war in the east in a matter of weeks and the victory has to be on a scale which they don’t really even dare to spell out in military terms and yet is clearly documented in the economic plan. It has to go as far as the Caucasus, not just the Ukraine, and it needs to go there in the first phase of the offensive.

Laurence Rees: It’s a fantasy.

Professor Adam Tooze: It’s at that point a complete fantasty, yes.

Laurence Rees: But these are intelligent people.

Professor Adam Tooze: Yes.

Laurence Rees: So how are intelligent people fantasizing about something so important as a world war?

Professor Adam Tooze: Well they’re acting in the framework of a regime which has massive momentum of its own. They believe in a possibility of a military victory. I don’t think one can exaggerate the significance of having defeated France in a matter of weeks.

Commentary: And the Germans had even planned that the war here in the Soviet Union was to be over by autumn. 

Professor Geoffrey Wawro: The Germans weren’t outfitted for a winter war - they hadn’t bothered to bring along anti-freeze for their vehicles, winter uniforms - because they’d expected this to be a short, sharp campaign, that they would kick in the door and the whole thing would fall down.

Commentary: By October the Germans were at the gates of Moscow. Inside the Soviet capital there was panic. A panic – not surprisingly – not featured in these propaganda newsreels.

Soviet propaganda archive revoiced with wartime American narration: And Moscow citizens go all-out for defence.

Commentary: Could the Soviets hold Moscow, and for the first time push the Germans back?

Soviet propaganda archive revoiced with wartime American narration: Goodbye. Good luck.