The war in Russia was to change the course of World War Two in Europe. In June 1941, World War Two witnessed what was then the largest land attack in history -‘Operation Barbarossa‘. A vast Nazi force used Blitzkrieg to devastating effect on the Russian Army. Hitler had long made it clear that he hated the Russians and that war between the two countries was inevitable. The Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 had only delayed what Hitler was apparently planning even when the Battle of Britain was at its height. He believed that the Russians were sub-human (the ‘untermenschen’ ) and that they had no right to live where they did. That they were East European was compounded by the fact that Russia was communist and led by Joseph Stalin. Hitler hated communism and Stalin.
Hitler wanted all the land in Eastern Europe to be given to Germans as they, Hitler believed, could farm it properly while East Europeans could not. Also many Jews lived in Russia (also known as the USSR at this time) and Hitler wanted them exterminated.
In August 1939, Hitler and Russia had signed a treaty of non-aggression which was meant to last for 10 years. However, for both countries the treaty was merely to buy time to get their armies into shape before one attacked the other. Hitler wished to stabilise his western frontier before turning east. Stalin desperately needed to reform his army after the 1930’s putches when his senior officers had been effectively wiped out either by imprisonment or execution.
Hitler’s senior commanders had advised that the bulk of the German attack should be concentrated on Moscow. Two smaller armies would target Leningrad and Stalingrad and engage the enemy. These two armies would then be helped by the troops in the main bulk once Moscow had surrendered. They felt that once the heart of the nation had been cut out, the rest of the country would fall.
Hitler would not have this. He did not believe that the Russian army was a match for the Wehrmacht and decided on three equal forces attacking Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad. As always, he got his way.
The German attack on Russia involved:
3 million soldiers,
The Russian army collapsed under this onslaught and the attack was initially incredibly successful. Moscow was nearly reached, Leningrad was surrounded and the oil fields in the south were swiftly approached. But it had one main failing and that was created by Hitler himself.
As the Russians pulled back (retreated) they destroyed anything that might be of use to the German army as it advanced – bridges, railways, buildings etc. and poisoned water supplies. This policy was known as “scorched earth” and it was not expected by the Germans and severely hindered their armies. The supply lines of the German army stretched from Germany through Poland and into Russia itself – a huge distance to defend and control. These supply lines were attacked by guerrillas called partisans who did a considerable amount of damage to the German army and caused major shortages.
The winter of 1941–42 was one of the worst in recorded history. Daily temperatures fell to 40 degrees below zero. German soldiers had not been issued with warm winter clothing as Hitler believed that the invasion would be over by the winter. Soldiers froze to death in their sleep, diesel froze in fuel tanks and food was in very short supply. Russian soldiers had been issued with winter clothing and did not suffer as badly as their German enemies.
The defeat of an entire German army at Stalingrad was a disaster for the Germans and some historians consider this battle the turning point of World War Two because the German army could now only go in one direction and that was back to Germany.
However, while the army was fighting the Russian army, soldiers from the SS Einsatzgruppen murdered hundreds of thousands of civilians. This was all part of Hitler’s plan to get rid of ‘sub-humans’ from Europe. It is thought that as many as 20 million Russians died during the war. The slaughter was so great that Himmler believed that the policy of shooting civilians might disturbed those doing the killing. A direct result of this was the order to find a quicker way of murdering the people of Russia and the idea of death factories developed from this which lead to the Holocaust.
However, from a military point of view, the defeat of the Germans by the Russians was vital to the Allies overall victory in Europe. Over two-thirds of the German army was in the Russian war and its defeat meant that the Allies in the west (GB, France and USA) had more chance of success against a smaller force. Winston Churchill stated that it was the Russians who “tore the heart out of the German army.”
What was the war like for the people in Russia and for the German soldiers?
From a German soldier who fought in Russia :
“Do you know how we behaved to the civilians? We behaved like devils out of Hell. We left those poor villagers to starve to death, thousands and thousands of them. How can you win a war in this way?
We shoot villagers on the slightest excuse. Just stick them up against a wall. We order the whole village out to watch. It’s a vicious circle. We hate them and they hate us, and on and on it goes, everyone getting more inhuman.
The civilians were all ready to look on us as saviours. They had had years of oppression from the communists. What did we do? Turn into slaves under Hitler.
If the Russians should ever pay back one half of what we have done, you won’t smile or sing again.
We were quartered (living) in a house outside the town. Our dwelling for the night was a wooden house occupied by a Russian family of five children and an old grandmother. We were bitten by fleas all night. We opened our tins and made coffee, sharing what we had with the children and the old woman.
The man of the house was a soldier and the mother had been taken away to dig trenches. The children all had protubing bellies of long-term malnutrition. The reality is that after 22 years of Communist rule, a salted fish is the height of luxury. How this country depresses me.”
From a soldier who fought in southern Russia :
“I watched my mother and father die. I knew perfectly well that they were starving. But I wanted their bread more than I wanted them to stay alive. And they knew that. That’s what I remember about the blockade (of Leningrad): that feeling that you wanted your parents to die because you wanted their bread.”
Daily rationing quotas for the people of Leningrad in November 1941
Child of Eight