On this date in 1941, Germany launched its surprise attack on the Soviet Union, codenamed Barbarossa (after Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor from 1152-90). It was one of two crucial mistakes made by Adolph Hitler in 1941 (the other being his declaration of war on the United States four days after Pearl Harbor - for more see April 1945: Germany's End). Barbarossa is often linked to the similar campaign by Napoleon Bonaparte which also resulted in a disaster for the attacker - the invasion of Russia beginning on June 24, 1812. What is less recognized is that both decisions were driven by the desire to defeat Great Britain.
For the national socialist Hitler, war with the Soviet communists was historically necessary since Germany's destiny was to rule and settle the agricultural lands of European Russia as he wrote in his 1920s manifesto, Mein Kampf. For the Soviet Marxists making Europe's leading industrial economy with its biggest working class a communist state remained a goal.
Throughout the 1930s, Hitler and Josef Stalin studied and learned from each other. Of course, the German - Soviet relationship went back further. In the 1920s, with Germany militarily restricted by the Versailles Treaty, it had a secret agreement with the Soviets under which it trained cadres of the new Red Army in exchange for Soviet factories making prototypes and testing new weapons banned under Versailles. After Hitler took power in January 1933 the regimes embarked on a macabre dance:
- On June 29-30, 1934 Hitler purged his oldest brown shirt comrades and supporters in the S.A. with the assistance of the newer S.S. (the guys in the blackshirts) in the Night of the Long Knives. The move occurred because the S.A. was becoming a threat to Hitler's power and to his relationship with the German military leading to the Fuhrer even approving the killing of Ernest Rohm, S.A. Commander and his closest associate going back to the earliest days of the Nazi Party. (Hitler & Rohm)
- On December 1, 1934, Sergei Kirov, head of the Leningrad branch of the Soviet Communist Party was assassinated in his office. Stalin claimed that anti-Soviet forces were behind the murder and he used the alleged conspiracy to justify his next steps in 1936. As we know now, it was Stalin who orchestrated Kirov's murder in order to eliminate his strongest opponents within the Communist Party.(Stalin & Kirov from Sheila O'Malley)
- Citing the threat from anti-Soviet elements supposedly involved in Kirov's murder as well as alleged incidents of sabotage of the Soviet economy, in the summer of 1936 Stalin began what later became known as the Great Purges or the Great Terror which lasted until 1939. Stalin eliminated all of his real or potential rivals in the Old Bolshevik Party, which meant everyone senior in the party at the time of the 1917 Revolution, as Hitler had done with the S.A., as well as other non-Communist class enemies and finally the military leadership.
- Following Stalin's lead, in November 1938 using a trumped up sexual scandal as a pretext, Hitler removed the top leaders of the German Army who had opposed his Czechoslovakia strategy, allowing the Fuhrer to take direct control of the Wehrmacht and have its soldiers swear a direct oath of allegiance to him.
All this happened while the two regimes were furiously denouncing each other, an activity which abruptly came to an end on August 23, 1939 when a startled world found out that the regimes had signed a Non-Aggression Pact. The Pact also contained secret clauses providing for the division of Poland and the Baltic States as well as agreements for Soviet supply of food and raw materials to the Nazi regime clearing the way for Germany's September 1 attack on Poland which started World War II. For the next 22 months the Soviets would be a Nazi ally and major supplier while Communists around the world were instructed to immediately switch from demanding a Popular Front against the Nazis to obstructing the efforts of England and France to defeat Germany and to demand that the United States stay out of the war.
(Signing the Pact in Moscow is German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop (executed after the war) with Stalin smiling behind him and Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov to his left; from awesome stories)
The Non-Aggression Pact did not change both Hitler and Stalin's beliefs that their countries remained fundamentally enemies and at some future time would be at war with each other. The only question was when.
It was in the fall of 1940 that Hitler decided that the time had come to attack the Soviet Union. By then Poland had been crushed, France defeated and Denmark, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands occupied. England's army had been seriously damaged in France but the air campaign known as the Battle of Britain had been unsuccessful in bringing the English to the negotiating table and Churchill showed no signs of yielding. Unlike Poland and the Soviet Union, Hitler did not seek the destruction of the British Empire - his goal was British recognition of Germany's right to dominate mainland Europe and to accept a subsidiary position within the Third Reich's new world order. Frustrated with Britain's senseless (in his view) intransigence, Hitler decided that the time had come to attack the Soviet Union and on December 18, 1940 issued the formal order for Operation Barbarossa. Why did his frustration with Britain lead to an attack on the Soviet Union?
In Ian Kershaw's masterful two-part biography of Hitler: Nemesis (1889-1936) and Hubris (1936-45) he sets out Hitler's reasoning, based on recollections of participants and notes from the Fuhrer's discussions with military leaders on January 8-9, 1941:
On the reasons for deciding to attack the Soviet Union, Hitler reiterated arguments he had been deploying since the previous summer. Partly, the argument rested on an understanding of Soviet intentions, sharpened since Molotov's visit. Stalin was shrewd, said Hitler and would increasingly exploit Germany's difficulties. But the crux of his case was, as ever, the need to pull away what he saw as a vital prop to British interests. 'The possibility of a Russian intervention in the war was sustaining the English' he went on. 'They would only give up the contest if this last continental hope were demolished'. He did not think 'the English were crazy. If they saw no further chance of winning the war, they would stop fighting, since losing it would mean they no longer had the power to hold together the Empire. Were they able to hold out, could put together forty to fifty divisions, and the USA and Russia were to help them, a very difficult situation for Germany would arise. That must not happen. Up to now he had acted on the principle of always smashing the most important enemy positions to advance a step. Therefore Russia must now be smashed. Either the English would then give in, or Germany would continue the fight against England in more favorable circumstances. The smashing of Russia would also allow Japan to turn with all its might against the USA' hindering American intervention.Hitler's confidence was enhanced by knowing that Stalin had purged the Soviet army of its best commanders, a fact demonstrated by that army's terribly inept performance in its surprise assault on Finland and its tiny army in what was know as the Winter War (November 30,1939 - March 13, 1940). The Finnish repulsed the initial attacks with heavy losses and it was only when the massive manpower and material superiority of the Red Army finally overwhelmed them that they agreed to Stalin's demand.
Despite multiple warnings from Churchill and Roosevelt among others and the efforts of Richard Sorge, a Soviet spy in Japan who provided the exact date for the start of Barbarossa, Stalin refused to believe it and accused those delivering the warnings of being provocateurs trying to start a war. Tragically, even in the hours before the attack there are documented instances of German soldiers deserting to the Soviets with news of the impending assault and of Stalin ordering their execution.
What Hitler underestimated was the resiliency of the Soviet army and soldier - the ability to take an initial beating that would have, and did, cause every other European army to collapse, the sheer number of soldiers the country could mobilize and field, the utter ruthlessness of Soviet civilian and military leadership, the willingness to convert their economy (unlike Germany's) into a seven days a week total war production machine, the impact of the terrible state of Russian roads and transport multiplied by the vast distances involved and the effect of the Nazi's brutal treatment of the occupied peoples many of whom hated the Communists and would otherwise have provided support for the attackers.(from ohwy)
The Nazis were stopped in front of Moscow in December 1941. After restarting their advance in June 1942 they suffered massive losses at Stalingrad ending in the formal surrender of the 6th Army on February 2, 1943 (see Life And Fate). Twenty seven months later Adolph Hitler committed suicide as Soviet soldiers advanced towards his underground bunker through the rubble filled streets of Berlin.
(Moscow burning 1812; fires set as the French entered at order of the Russian governor of the city, from Wikipedia)
"I have no reason to be in Russia. I do not want anything from her, as long as the Treaty of Tilsit is respected. I want to leave here as my only quarrel is with England. Ah, if I could only take London! I would not leave that."On June 25, 1807, the Emperor Napoleon of France and Czar Alexander I of Russia met on in a tented pavilion on a barge anchored in the river Niemen near the town of Tilsit on the border between Prussia and Russia.
- Napoleon, September 20, 1812 in Moscow as quoted in Moscow 1812 by Adam Zamoyski
The past two years had seen the French emperor cement his domination of mainland Europe. In December 1805 the armies of the Czar and of the Hapsburg Emperor of Austria had been routed at Austerlitz. In October 1806 the Prussians were destroyed at Jena and Auerstadt and the Russians soundly defeated at Eylau (January 1807) and Friedland (June 1807). From Madrid to Warsaw, from Naples to Copenhagen, Napoleon ruled directly or through his proxies.
Despite his success on the continent, the British would not bend to Napoleon's will and remained defiant. Moreover, Admiral Nelson's destruction of the combined French-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar in October 1805 put an end to Bonaparte's dream of defeating the British at sea. Instead, France was doomed to be blockaded as long as perfidious Albion remained a defiant and powerful opponent.
Napoleon's solution was to impose the Continental System on France and its willing and unwilling allies under which no British trade would be allowed with continental Europe. The goal was to crush England's economy and bring the British to terms that would solidify French control of Europe and, with the formal recognition of Napoleon's reign as Emperor, provide a stable foundation for the establishment of his dynasty.
At Tilsit the young and impressionable Czar (he was only 29 at the time; Napoleon who had been the major figure on the European scene for almost a decade was still only 36) came under Bonaparte's spell as the Emperor spun a future in which France and Russia dominated Europe and might even take on England, perhaps joining together to liberate India. The Czar agreed to terms which included Russian adherence to the Continental System, the loss by Prussia of extensive territories and half its population and the establishment of a French satellite, the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, a partial resurrection of the Polish state eliminated in three partitions between Russia, Prussia and Austria in the late 18th century.
The agreement at Tilsit quickly began to unravel. Much of the Russian nobility rejected it being particularly incensed by the new stub of a Polish state, Napoleon diplomatic touch proved to be much worse than his military abilities further alienating and insulting Russia and participating in the Continental System hurt Russia's economy more than Britain's. And Alexander was beginning to believe that Bonaparte posed a threat to the stability of Europe.
Over the next few years Russian-French relations deteriorated with the Russians first quietly and then overtly defecting from the embargo on Britain. The English themselves were becoming even more in a nuisance. After the Spanish rose up against the French occupiers in 1808, the British sent troops to the Iberian peninsula to support them.
All this added to Napoleon's obsession with the English. According to Zamoyski:
He had persuaded himself that Britain was suffering economically, and that a few more months would probably bring her to the negotiating table. He therefore adopted a more aggressive attitude to the application of the Continental System. His correspondence bristles with detailed instructions to the rulers and administrators of the coastal areas under his control on which ships and goods to impound and which to allow through.By late 1811, Napoleon had determined that unless the Czar reaffirmed his commitment to the Continental System, military action by France would be required and preparations for the 1812 campaign began and by the time it was launched Bonaparte had assembled the largest army in European history, just under 600,000.
But there was a difference between the approaches of Hitler and Napoleon to their campaigns. Hitler wanted to drive Britain to the negotiating table by defeating the Soviet Union but he also had a fundamental ideological hostility to the Soviets and so the goal of the German campaign was to annihilate the Communist state, permanently occupy much of it and ruthlessly exterminate millions of people. Napoleon had no such underlying hostility regarding Russia. As Zamoyski notes Napoleon's:
. . . unwillingness to damage Russia any more than was necessary. He wanted to frighten her, but he did not want to destroy her as a power. He wanted to co-opt her as an ally against Britain. There was no other reason for France to go to war with Russia; there was nothing Russia had that France could have possibly wanted.This difference played out in Napoleon's strategy for the campaign as Zamoyski writes:
He still refused to see Alexander as an enemy to be defeated, thinking of him rather as a wayward ally. Had it not been so, he would have declared the restoration of the Kingdom of Poland with its 1772 frontiers, thereby launching a national insurrection in the rear of the Russian armies. He could also have proclaimed the liberation of the serfs in Russia, which would have ignited unrest all over the country . . . But he wanted to bring Alexander to back to heel with as little unpleasantness as possible and a minimum of damage. 'I will make war on Alexander in all courtesy, with two thousand guns and 500,000 soldiers, without starting an insurrection'.
Like Hitler, Napoleon underestimated the strategic depth afforded by the expanse of Russia, failed to adequately provide logistic support for his troops, misjudged the impact of winter weather but most of all the resolve of Czar Alexander and his conviction that the French emperor needed to be defeated. In fact, before the French attack (which unlike Hitler's, was not a surprise) Russia had been building up its forces preparing to move west into Prussia and the Duchy of Warsaw.
(The retreat from Moscow)
When Napoleon reached Moscow, just days after the Battle of Borodino, the bloodiest day in European history since the Rome, he anticipated that the Czar would follow the logical course and enter into negotiations. Alexander refused to do so and ultimately Napoleon began his retreat in late October. When the Grand Armee of Napoleon stumbled into Vilna in early December 1812 it contained barely 10,000 combat ready troops along with an emaciated, frozen and half-crazed rabble of those who used to be soldiers. Sixteen months later Czar Alexander, accompanied by Russian cavalry, would triumphantly ride through the streets of Paris as Napoleon prepared to abdicate at his palace in Fountainbleau.