June 22, 2020

Why Invading Russia was Hitler's Downfall

Why Invading Russia was Hitler's Downfall

“Twenty-seven million dead – such a price was paid by no other country….You cannot understand Russia unless you understand what we went through in the war.”

—Vladimir Putin, June 22, 2001

June 22, 2020, marks the 79th anniversary of Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany’s invasion of Russia. The event set off a new stage of World War II, precipitated a catastrophic loss of life in the Soviet Union, and, it would hardly be an exaggeration to say, changed the course of world history.

On this day in 1941, Nazi troops passed onto Soviet soil to commence a siege that caught most citizens by surprise. While Stalin had received numerous warnings from his military advisors that Hitler's attack was imminent, he did not heed their advice. By the end of the war, over 27 million Soviet citizens lost their lives.

The Soviet Union entered the war in 1939 when, under their Non-aggression Pact of 1939 with Germany, they invaded Poland and quickly defeated the Polish army. Secretly, an addendum had been added to the Pact. According to the addendum, Poland and the whole of Eastern Europe would be divided between Germany and the Soviet Union. The Soviets received Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Finland, and Poland east of a line formed by the Vistula and San rivers.

But Hitler’s share of the spoils was not enough for him. The Führer was determined to take over the Soviet Union as soon as he obtained control of Europe, regardless of his pact with Stalin.

Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in the surprise attack known as Operation Barbarossa set off the Great Patriotic War, Russia's name for WWII as fought on Soviet soil. The Soviet Union needed to defend its borders and citizens – and to do that, Stalin joined forces with the Allies. This was a significant turnaround after the pact with Hitler, but a necessary one to face the Nazis in war.

It has been speculated that if Hitler had not attacked the Soviet Union, Stalin may well have never entered WWII and would have continued to supply the Nazis with the materials of war. A worse scenario would have been if Stalin had supplemented Hitler’s forces with Soviet troops. The outcome of WWII in Europe might have been very different.

Luckily for that particular period of world history, military leaders with the goal of gaining a foothold on Russian soil have not fared very well. Napoleon invaded Russia and tried to take Moscow beginning in mid-June of 1812. His attempt was far more short-lived than Hitler's, and just as unsuccessful. At least, unsuccessful for him: it became a central element of Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace, making it one of the most literarily important wars in history.

Hitler, initially, managed to take large portions of the Soviet Union west of the Urals with sweeping panzer movements. His goal was to take down the Soviets, gain control of Moscow, and proceed over the Urals to where Stalin had positioned the bulk of his manufacturing plants.

But it was not to be. By November, 1941, the Germans had suffered an unprecedented 730,000 casualties. The Soviet winter counter-offensives, launched in December, steadily exhausted and demoralized the Nazi troops. Hitler, having visions of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, forbade any form of retreat. This caused his troops to suffer dramatically as they lacked proper clothing and supplies to survive the brutal Russian winter.

On top of that, the Soviet Union was now one of the Allies. The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union prompted a resolution between Moscow, Britain, and the United States in September of 1941. The United States and Britain pledged quarterly allotments of supplies to the Soviet Union to aid in their struggle with Germany. By the end of winter, Hitler's divisions had been diminished by roughly two-thirds: it was a force he would never fully rebuild.

After tremendous suffering, loss of life and bloodshed, the Soviet Union managed to turn the tide with victories at Stalingrad and Kursk in 1942 and 1943. Like Napoleon, Hitler was run out of Russia, pursued by an army of determined Russians with a blood debt to settle. The Red Army pushed Hitler back to Berlin and captured that city in the early days of May 1945. Allied forces entered Berlin from the west, and the end of WWII in Europe was declared on May 9th – a date celebrated as Victory Day in Russia to this day.

June 22 is a date that means little to the rest of the world and is acknowledged only in other nations affected by Hitler's siege, particularly Ukraine and Belarus. Russians see the eventual victory over Hitler as a testament to their endurance, tenacity, and iron will. They also see it, especially the victory at Stalingrad, as a decisive turning point in the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany.

The significance of today's anniversary and the events of the following years of the Great Patriotic War cannot be underestimated in understanding Russian history. Moreover, the continued impact of the violence of war, massive loss of life, and sense of importance in driving the Allies toward victory continues to shape Russia today.

This article is adapted from “Invasion of Russia Remembered” by Linda Delaine.

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