Sixty-nine-years ago today, 3.5 million German troops, plus another million from Nazi allies, invaded the USSR. (Geographically, the land now makes up Lithuania, Belarus, eastern Poland, Ukraine, and Moldavia). It was the largest army ever assembled, the most ambitious invasion ever attempted, and it led to the most staggering land battles ever fought—and to casualty rates that can only be rivaled by the mass starvations of the worst twentieth century tyrannies.
That the opposing sides were in fact two of those tyrannies is not incidental. The Nazi’s goals were to kill Jews, enslave Slavs, steal resources (especially food and oil), and provide “living space” for Germans. The Soviet goal was simply to survive. But “survival” entailed, in Stalin’s mind, many measures that an ordinarily ruthless tyrant would have shrunk from, including mass deportations, purges, seemingly random arrests and imprisonments, and special units whose only task was to murder any soldier who retreated. The cruelties inflicted in pursuit of these goals transformed what would have been by any measure a terrible conflict into an apocalypse. Something close to half of all who died in the entire Second World War—upwards of 30 million—perished on the Eastern Front.
Why all this should be so little remembered in the West is a mystery. I suspect it has something to do with an understandable preference for wanting to study and memorialize “our” war. Everyone remembers the D-Day landings on June 6. But June 22 remains obscure. But this front was crucial to deciding the fate of Europe—and the world.
Operation Barbarossa—Hitler’s code name for the invasion—stands as a decisive refutation of history (with a capital “H”). Never has so much been decided by the insistence of one man, the delusions of another, and a smattering of chance. Hitler was nearly alone in his desire to invade Russia. His senior generals opposed the plan and feared it would end in catastrophe. They persuaded him to postpone invasion from the fall of 1940 to the spring of 1941. But when spring came, Hitler insisted that they wait several weeks while Nazi troops overran Yugoslavia (to avenge the unforgivable coup against a pro-Nazi government) and then Greece (to bail out the inept Mussolini and prevent a fascist defeat).
By the German general staff’s estimate, June 22 was at least seven weeks too late. But the cost of the delay would not be felt for months. The German strategy was to hit hard with armor, pierce the Russian lines, and advance as far as possible in great pincer movements to encircle and destroy (or capture) as much of the Red Army as possible. It worked amazingly well—for a while. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops were lost. It seemed impossible that Russia could ever recover.
Hitler’s dithering, over whether Army Group Center should remain focused on Moscow or join Army Group South’s assault in Kiev, possibly cost the Germans the capture of the Russian capital. The weather—and the Soviet’s amazing ability to create whole divisions seemingly up out of the ground—did the rest. On December 2, 1941, just as the first heavy snows began to fall, soldiers from Heinz Guderian’s Second Panzer Group could see the spires of the Kremlin. They would never get that close again.
Nor would they have gotten that close at all if Stalin had not heeded warning after warning that the invasion was coming. It’s possible to imagine—absent bad decisions and bad luck—that Operation Barbarossa could have achieved all of its major objectives in 1941. It is virtually impossible to imagine Germany—then a nation of some 80 million—permanently occupying the vastness of the USSR and its 200 million occupants. But who knows how history might have differed?
What we can know is how history changed because of June 22, 1941. A straight line runs from that day through the Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe, the Cold War, the arms race, the breakup of the USSR, the entry of the Eastern European states into the Western alliance, the resurgence of Russia, and everything that follows. Nearly seven decades later, we still live with the consequences.