Seventy-five years ago, on June 22, 1941, in Operation Barbarossa, German forces suddenly invaded the Soviet Union, beginning a conflict that left an estimated 27 million Soviet citizens dead by war’s end. Ceremonies have traditionally been held on June 22 each year in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, the three republics of the USSR that bore the brunt of the initial invasion.
After the war, when the United Nations was founded, the USSR became one of the five members of the Security Council with a veto power, but Ukraine and Belarus additionally had separate seats and representation as a way of honoring them for their sacrifices.
During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the Soviets saw Western democratic nations standing idly by as fascist forces aided by Hitler and Mussolini took control over Spain. The USSR by contrast actively supported the Spanish Republic. The Soviets came to realize that none of the Western powers was acting seriously to confront the fascist threat. In fact, they felt that if anything, the Western nations were hoping that the Nazis and the Communists would fight each other to exhaustion, thus saving themselves the effort.
Standard Soviet historiography tells us that Stalin, the Soviet leader, entered into a non-aggression pact with the Germans (the so-called Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939) so as to buy time during which the Soviets could build up their armed forces and military preparation for the inevitable confrontation to come. In the meantime diplomatic, military and cultural exchanges between Germany and the USSR would purport to be cordial.
The Soviets stayed neutral once Germany attacked and occupied Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France. At the same time, the Soviets themselves occupied or annexed territories of their own – half of Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, and part of Finland, wishing to push their frontier as far westward as possible in case of a Hitler double-cross. They claimed the first years of World War II as principally a struggle over colonies and world markets. The United States, still in an isolationist mood after the First World War, was also officially neutral during the years 1939-41, a period many communist parties labeled the “Phony War” or the “Second Imperialist War.”
There is a wide disparity of views about Soviet strategy. Some claim that the USSR was in fact woefully unprepared for the Nazi invasion. Initially, Nazi forces plunged deep into Soviet territory, abetted in many places by nationalists in Ukraine and elsewhere who believed they would be better off under the Germans than the Soviets. In addition, during the “Great Purges” of the 1930s Stalin had decimated the Soviet officer corps, which had to regroup quickly after the invasion.
In spite of their early advances, the Wehrmacht was not equipped for winter warfare. The bitter cold caused severe problems for their guns and equipment. Furthermore, weather conditions grounded the Luftwaffe from conducting any large-scale operations. Newly created Soviet units near Moscow numbered over 500,000 mobilized soldiers, and in early December, they launched a massive counterattack as part of the Battle of Moscow that pushed the Germans back over 320 km (200 miles). By late December 1941, the Germans had lost the battle for Moscow. The invasion had cost the German army over 830,000 casualties in killed, wounded, captured or missing in action.
With the failure to capture Moscow, all German plans for a quick defeat of the Soviet Union had to be revised. In addition to this devastating setback for Germany, the Soviet Union also suffered heavily from the conflict, losing huge tracts of territory, and vast losses in people and material. Despite the rapid relocation of Red Army armaments installations east of the Urals and a dramatic increase of production in 1942, especially of tanks, new aircraft types and artillery, the Wehrmacht was able to mount another large-scale offensive in July 1942. Hitler, having realized that Germany’s oil supply was running out, aimed to capture the oil fields of Baku in the Azerbaijani republic in the Caucasus. Once again, the Germans quickly overran great expanses of Soviet territory, but they failed to achieve their ultimate goals in the wake of their decisive defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad (now Volgograd).
By 1943, Soviet armaments production was fully operational and increasingly outproducing the German war economy. The Red Army, through steadily more ambitious and tactically sophisticated offensives, was able to liberate all areas previously occupied by the German invasion by the summer of 1944. The war ended with the total defeat and occupation of Nazi Germany in May 1945. In the post-war border adjustments the USSR incorporated the Baltic States as three new Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Until the day when socialist-minded historians dominate their field in Western capitalist countries, it is doubtful that the enormous contributions and sacrifices of the Soviet people during World War II – or what the Soviets called their “Great Patriotic War” – will ever be adequately acknowledged.
The history of invasion from industrialized Western Europe goes back even further in history to Napoleon. Whatever the type of government in power in Russia, whether Czarist, communist or capitalist, the Russian objective of preserving tranquility on its western border can be readily understood. Present-day concerns about NATO incorporating the former socialist-bloc states of Eastern Europe, and the positioning of military bases and dangerous weapons practically at the Russian border, need to be heard in the light of this terrible, unforgettable history.
A more extensive treatment of Operation Barbarossa on Wikipedia can be found here.
Photo: Heinrich Himmler inspects a prisoner of war camp in Russia, 1941. Himmler was one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany and one of the people most directly responsible for the Holocaust. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38435601