The German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 is perhaps one of the most crucial turning points of World War II, as hubris of Adolf Hitler and the German high command was rewarded with an unexpected defeat. Code-named Operation Barbarossa, after a medieval German ruler, the German invasion was doomed from the start, based as it was upon a number of assumptions regarding the Soviet ability to repel an attack and the estimated length of the operation. By examining the immediate context of Barbarossa as well as the planning and outcome of the operation, one is able to see how the catastrophic German defeat in the Soviet Union set the stage for the Nazi's eventual downfall.
The plans for Operation Barbarossa were first drawn up in February of 1941, but Hitler's desire to invade Russia had been made clear years before, such that one may view Barbarossa as the culmination of "nearly two decades of Nazi ranting about a Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy" (Kirchubel, 2007, p. 8). Although the Soviet Union and Germany had signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty in 1939, "which provided Germany with natural resources, strategic materials and a free hand in western and much of central Europe," both sides seemed aware that this treaty was only a means of forestalling the inevitable, considering Germany's ever-increasing need for natural resources and the fundamental oppositions between Nazi ideology and Communism (p. 8). Thus, while Hitler bid his time until he could invade the Soviet Union, the Soviets were simultaneously waiting for the German military to wear itself down in Europe before striking Germany (although this is not to suggest that the Soviet Union had any plans for a German invasion anywhere near as developed as Operation Barbarossa). As Hitler believed his efforts to control western Europe were largely a foregone conclusion, he directed his attention towards Russia.
Operation Barbarossa differed from other German invasions from the start, because during the initial planning stages Hitler demonstrated a loathing towards the general populace of Russia not previously seen (despite his obvious opinions regarding certain ethnic groups). Thus, the plan for Barbarossa consisted of three key elements. Firstly, "the Wehrmacht was to be ready to bring down the Soviet Union in a short campaign," with "the ultimate goal [being] to break up Russia into states handed over to civilian administration as and as extensively as possible" (Mineau, 2004, pg. 102-103). In order to accomplish this complete takeover, the responsibility for securing captured areas was taken from the Wehrmacht and handed over to the Sipo-SD as well as the SS, with the intention that these organizations would deal with "leading emigrants, saboteurs, terrorists" and other partisan resistors in such a brutal fashion as to discourage any further resistance on the part of the general populace (p. 103). These plans reveal two major assumptions underlying Operation Barbarossa that would eventually prove disastrous for the German campaign.
Firstly, Hitler assumed that the Red Army was simply not prepared to repel a German invasion, not least of all because Stalin's purges had included a number of military leaders (Steury, 2005). This, coupled with Germany's relatively easy domination of France, led to Hitler suffering "from what the Japanese, from bitter experience, would call "victory disease," such that "Germans overestimated their own capabilities, even as they underestimated the Soviet capacity to resist" (Steury, 2005). This assumption of Soviet weakness allowed Hitler to assume that the initial military operation would be over quickly, which was the second fatal overestimation, as the German military's complete lack of preparation for the Russian winter demonstrated. Thus, even as the initial date for the operation was pushed later and later, the Germans remained confident that they could secure the vast expanse of the Soviet Union before weather became an issue (Kirchubel, 2007, p. 10). This of course proved false, but even more basic errors on the part of the German military, and Hitler in particular, led to the failure of Barbarossa. Before examining these errors, however, one must briefly examine the Soviet side of the equation, and in particular the extent to which Stalin was or was not prepared for the invasion.
One of the most hotly debated historical aspects of Operation Barbarossa is the extent to which Stalin knew of the attack beforehand, considering that he apparently "ignore[d] the yearlong military buildup in eastern Europe...
This was despite the fact that Stalin seemed all to aware that Germany was intent on attacking Russia, and indeed, his diplomatic efforts were almost entirely geared towards forestalling this conflict, rather than avoiding it. It seems that Germany's impending attack should have been obvious to all, considering that "in 1929, Polish counterintelligence agents intercepted an Enigma machine," so that by 1939, both the British and French had their own copies of the machine as well as the necessary information for breaking German encryption (Dziewanowski, 1994, p. 381). Thus, Polish and British intelligence learned of preparations for Barbarossa in time to warn Stalin of an impending attack, and even Stalin himself had previously acknowledged Hitler's inevitable desire to invade the Soviet Union.
Nonetheless, the Soviets were caught off-guard, so that "on the morning of 22 June 1941, […] German unites punched through the Soviet lines and encircled hundreds of thousands of troops, while the Luftwaffe pulverized the Soviet air force on the ground" (Steury, 2005). The German forces of over three million men were divided into "three army groups lined up abreast at the starter's barrage" which "simultaneously started off as fast as possible in three extrinsic directions: towards Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev," because the Germans wanted to take Russia quickly while simultaneously securing the vast oil supplies in the Ukraine (Showalter, 2010, p. 1318-1319). Army Group North headed towards Leningrad, Army Group Centre originally headed towards Moscow, and Army Group South went to Ukraine.
Again this plan demonstrates the fundamental assumptions underlying the German operation, because although the German forces were able to rapidly advance into the Soviet Union, miscalculations regarding the speed with which the operation could be accomplished forced the German command to come up with new plans on the fly, resulting in a bungling of the entire operation. The decision to divide the forces in this way contributed to the German military's eventual inability to secure Moscow, due to the fact that "Hitler's decision to send the panzers of Army Group Center away from Moscow and into the Ukraine robbed the Wehrmacht of a victory that would have changed the world for generations" (Hooker, 1999, p. 150). The fact that Barbarossa was predicated upon everything going precisely to plan is demonstrated by the relative chaos which characterized German tactical decisions following the initial advance into Russia. The decision to treat any resistance or subversion with the utmost brutality backfired spectacularly, radicalizing and emboldening the population rather than crushing it into subservience, and providing the Soviets with the most effective propaganda they could imagine (a phenomena which allows a number of uncomfortable comparisons to the use of the United States' contemporary decision to torture detainees and indiscriminately bomb civilians and militants in jihadist propaganda).
As Army Group Centre was delayed by much stronger Soviet resistance (of both the military and subversive kind) than expected, Hitler decided that securing Ukraine was ultimately a more important goal than capturing Moscow. In August of 1941, Hitler "issued orders […] to break off the armored advance on Moscow and encircle Kiev" (Hooker, 1999, p. 156). Unwilling to commit to the original plan, even at the behest of his military advisers, Hitler essentially panicked when his assumptions regarding the speed with which Operation Barbarossa might be accomplished so that instead of a decisive, three-pronged blitzkrieg of the Soviet Union, the German advance deteriorated into a relatively disorganized misapplication of strength (figure 1, Kirchubel, 2007, p. 6). Examining the attached map of German and Soviet troop movements demonstrates this with a kind of simple clarity, because the decision to send the panzers of Army Group Centre south towards Kiev meant that they would have to cover nearly twice the distance when they were once again redirected towards Moscow. Thus, the overconfidence which characterized the planning of Barbarossa crumbled in the face of Soviet resistance, so that despite the fact that the Soviets were still under-prepared and under-supplied, following Hitler's August decision the fate of the German campaign was essentially sealed.
Though the failure of Operation Barbarossa may have been apparent to some in 1941, "the Red Army would take years, burying its dead in their millions, to move the same distance west" as the German army had managed to advance east. Nonetheless, Barbarossa proved to be a turning point in the war, because aside from Britain's ability to maintain despite German bombings, the Soviet Union had effectively broken the spirit of a German command that had previously considered its military might and tactics undefeatable. Germany's attack on the Soviet…
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