Operation Barbarossa

Operation Barbarossa was perhaps the boldest, most ambitious but at the same time most foolish and ill-timed operation executed by Nazi Germany during World War II. This operation committed Germany to war against the Soviet Union which it invaded on June 22, 1941 and terminated on March of 1942. In the early stages of the campaign, the Germans employed the same bilitzkrieg tactics that served them well in the western campaigns.

They were hoping to duplicate that same victory against the Soviets and were lulled into a false sense of confidence when they covered a lot of ground and scored many victories which netted them scores of prisoners of war. When 1942 came along, German high command began to realize later on how wrong they were and thus began a protracted war in what they came to call the “eastern front. ” This operation was intended to be the fulfillment of Hitler’s vision of lebensraum (living space) in his work, Mein Kampf.

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“If land was desired in Europe, it could be obtained by and large only at the expense of Russia, and this meant that the new Reich must again set itself on the march along the road of the Teutonic Knights of old, to obtain by the German sword sod for the German plow and daily bread for the nation… … Destiny itself seems to wish to point out the way to us here… This colossal empire in the East is ripe for dissolution, and the end of the Jewish domination in Russia will also be the end of Russia as a state. ” (cited in Shirer 124, 1044; Riasanovsky 515; Hitler)
Politically, the clashing extremist ideologies of both Germany and the Soviet Union gave the Nazis even more impetus to invade Russia, considering it as a new crusade against communism which they believed was the creation of the Jews for whom Hitler and the Nazis could see no good. Furthermore, Hitler envisioned the Slavic people as a race that would serve the purpose of the Aryan race by wither being their slaves or “sport” wherein they would provide them with something to hunt or kill to maintain their virility (Hitler).
This was an opportunity for the Nazis to eradicate these enemies in one fell swoop, once and for all. The Spanish civil war of 1936 gave the Germans a taste of war against the communist where they even went face to face against Soviet “volunteers” in this conflict (Riasanovsky 514-515). As Hitler’s armies were annexing neighboring states as part of restoring Germany’s glory and patrimony, Hitler began conducting diplomatic overtures as part of his strategy to keep potential adversaries at bay, even for just a while and the Soviet Union was one of them.
Thus began secret dipomatic maneuvers which resulted in the non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union prior to the invasion of Poland where the latter was invited to take part in it. Furthermore, this pact served other purposes other than buying time for Germany to attack Russia. Strategically, Germany needed Russian territory to be able to transport resources to them following the blockade of the sealanes by the Allies, especially oil which was vital to Germany’s war economy and machinery (Shirer 821-822).
Despite entering into these agreements, secret or otherwise, both Germany and the Soviet Union still harbored suspicions and animosities against each other, primarily due to irreconcilable differences in ideology where both sides represent the opposite of political extremes, fascism and communism. The Soviets too saw the pact as an alliance of convenience on their part as they began their own expansion by invading the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia as well as Finland, which was an ally of Germany in 1940.
For the sake of keeping the peace with the Soviets, the Germans remained silent as their minor ally was attacked by the Soviets. Germany also felt insecure when the Soviets occupied the Baltic states which they also felt was theirs owing to historical precedence and even more concerned when the Soviets were also moving into Romania, another German ally further heightening tensions between these two supposed allies but it was rather apparent that conflict between them would be inevitable as both sides were taking advantage of each other, with the Soviets being the first (Riasanovsky 517; Shirer 832-836, 883).
The Nazis entered into a treaty with the Soviets as an alliance of convenience hoping to get more from the treaty. As the war was progressing in the west, the Germans were beginning to realize how difficult the Russians were as negotiators as the latter were driving very hard bargains, especially Stalin. It is revealed in captured German government documents that Stalin also took part in negotiations and was a very tough negotiator who could not be pushed into a compromise and always sought a better deal for Russia and was very demanding.
No amount of persuasion and even threats could deter the Russian autocrat (Shirer 882). The German war plan called for a one-front war in order to conserve and husband their resources. Though most of western Europe was not occupied, Great Britain remained defiant and continued to hold out in a protracted aerial battle over their airspace where they were able to inflict heavy casualties on the German Luftwaffe (air force), thereby forestalling any plans for a seaborne invasion by the Germans well into 1941.
By 1941, Hitler began to become impatient on how the campaign against the British was going. It also did not help that Germany was also suffering an acute shortage of resources and this was what prompted Hitler to jump the proverbial gun and attack Russia, thinking also that the British would not give him a problem as he decided to shelve the invasion of Britain and leave it to his U-Boats to strangle Britain economically.
By December of 1940, Hitler already had plans for the invasion from his generals and it was hoped that the attack would commence in the spring of 1941. The plan was codenamed “Barbarossa,” after the Holy Roman emperor who was one of the co-leaders of the Third Crusade; an apt name for the operation since Hitler regarded this planned offensive as a new crusade and it also came at a time when relations between Berlin and Moscow were starting to turn sour as both sides appear to sense that they were double-crossing each other (Shirer 1045, 1049).
Another reason for Hitler’s desire to attack Russia the soonest was to seal Britain’s fate, leaving her with no ally when he said: “But if Russia is smashed, Britain’s last hope will be shattered. Then Germany will be master of Europe and the Balkans… In view of these considerations, Russia must be liquidated… The sooner Russia is smashed, the better. ” (cited in Shirer 1047) Furthermore, Hitler also said that “When Barbarossa commences, the world wil hold its breath and make no comment.
” (cited in Shirer 1078) Hitler was apparently lulled into a false sense of confidence following the victories of German forces in Poland and western Europe and he felt they could do it again in Russia which made him even more confident because he regarded the Russians as inferior despite their large population and their inferiority would make it easy for Germany to defeat and conquer them. He was confident that he would succeed where Napoleon had failed, by conquering Russia quickly and in the shortest p of time possible.
The rationale for this was to avoid the harsh Russian winter which was one of the reasons why Napoleon failed and he would not want to make that same mistake Napoleon did. Furthermore, if the Russian campaign would drag on beyond winter, they also had to contend with the following spring where the snow-covered ground would turn muddy, which would play havoc on their powerful war machines which they had never encountered in the western front.
He was so driven and obsessed in attacking Russia that he disregarded the advice of his commanders to commence campaigns elsewhere by constantly stating Russia had to be eliminated first and that everything else could wait. The plan called for a six-month time table but constant foot-dragging and waging campaigns in the Balkans and North Africa delayed plans well into June of 1941 (Shirer 1087-1088). Alongside the military planning, Hitler also spelled out his political plans for Russia once the invasion commenced in what became known as the “Commissar Order.
” Hitler saw the war also as a battle of ideologies and he saw the need to eliminate those who propagate it when he stated: “The commissars are the bearers of ideologies directly opposed to National Socialism. Therefore the commissars will be liquidated. German soldiers guilty of breaking international law will be excused. Russia has not participated in the Hague Convention and therefore has no rights under it. ” (cited in Shirer 1089) It can further be inferred here that Hitler was intent on deliberately committing murder by ordering the systematic execution of any political commissar captured by German forces.
Most of Hitler’s commanders objected to it. These were professional soldiers who knew that murder was not part of a soldier’s duty and this would be something they would have to deal with when several of them would be brought to trial in Nuremberg in 1945 (Shirer 1089-1090). In an apparent display of overconfidence, Alfred Rosenberg, one of Hitler’s lieutenants, prematurely made a proposal on how to divide Russia into political administrations, each with an given German name.
The Baltic region and Belarus would be called Ostland; the Ukraine, along with its adjacent areas; Southern Russia running along the Caucasus mountains would be called Kaukasus; the areas surrounding Moscow, Moskau; and Turkestan for the central regions, each ruled by the modern-day German version of the ancient Roman prefect. Furthermore, plans were already in motion on how to best exploit Russia’s resources. They intend to use it to feed Germany’s industries and its people.
They were acutely aware of the adverse consequences it would have on the Russian people in terms of hunger but the Nazis could not care less on what would happen even if millions of Russians would perish under their proposed policies (Shirwe 1091-1092). The forces Hitler arrayed against Russia was made up of 175 army divisions, supported by formidable artillery and armored divisions, both from the Wehrmacht (regular army) and his elite Waffen-SS. These were divided into three army groups, North, Center and South, each given specific objectives to capture.
To the north, under the command of Field Marshal Wilhelmvon Leeb, the target was Leningrad. As the city’s name implies, it was named after Lenin, the acknowledged father of the Russian Revolution which incidentally began in that city, then named Petrograd (St. Petersburg) and the Soviet Union and therefore, one of the symbolic targets of the German invasion forces. Historially, Hitler believed Leningrad was once part of the territory conquered by the Teutonic Knights of the Middle Ages and he was simply trying to take back what belonged to Germany by virtue of conquest (Salisbury 37).
The center group, under Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, would head for the capital Moscow, reminiscent of Napoleon’s actions. The southern forces under Field Marshal Gert von Rundstedt would head for Kiev and Rostov-on-Don in what is now part of the Ukraine which was the Soviet Union’s agricultural heartland as well as the road to the oil-rich fields of the Caucasus and Black Sea area (Riasanovsky 518-519). Follow-on forces would come soon to do mop-up operations and to deal with any partisan or guerrilla activity in the occupied areas.
All in all, the Nazi regime had already made grandiose plans on what to do with Russia, believing they would finally succeed where Napoleon had failed in addition to the fact that Russia’s conquest would be the fulfillment of Hitler’s visions defined in Mein Kampf. On the part of the Soviets, they had the numerical superiority over the Germans with roughly 8 million men to the Germany’s 4 million which also included its allies from Italy, Hungary, Finland and Romania.
They even had ten times the number of artillery, armored vehicles and aircraft arrayed against the Germans as well. In terms of numbers, the Soviets were by no means weak. If there was one weakness of the Red Army, it was its diversity with men from the various Soviet republics and whose dispositions ranged from cooperative to hostile towards one another even before they faced the Germans.
Furthermore, majority of the Soviet forces initially arrayed were made up primarily of conscripts coming mainly from the peasantry, a throwback of the Tsarist era. The commissars were the ones who primarily kept them in line, not just to preserve ideological purity but meting out discipline instead of the officers assigned to the units and even tried to lead them, replacing the ones persecuted even though they lacked the qualifications. Communications and leadership was also poor.
This was partly Stalin’s fault during the Great Purge of the 1930’s where several competent senior officers of the Red Army were victims of the purges, depriving their units of capable leaders. As a result, these units were routed with millions killed and taken prisoner (Parker 60). Overall command was under Field Marshal Georgi Zhukov who had distinguished himself in the far east in border clashes against the Japanese which gave him a reputation of being a successful commander.
Countering the three German offensive groups are three “Directions” tasked with forming the defense of their assigned territory and launch a counteroffensive. They were the North-Western Direction under Colonel Generals Markian Popov and Fyodor Kuznetsov which covers the Baltic region; the Western Direction under General Dimitry Pavlov which covers the areas west of Moscow and the South-Western Direction under Generals Mikhail Kirponos and Ivan Tyulenev concentrating on the Ukraine (Parker 107; Riasanovsky 518).
Despite having more war machines compared to the Germans, they were inferior in quality. The Soviets initially had the T-28 medium tanks which could not stand up to the supeior armor the Germans prepared the Panzer I-III series. Although the Soviets had quality armor like the T-34 and KV-1, they were not abundant in number and were reserved for first-line units, particularly the elite “Guards” units.
For air assets, once more, the quality of Soviet combat aircraft was inferior to ther Germans as they fielded the Poikarpov I-16, Lavochkin-3 and Mig-3 which were mediocre compared to the superior Bf109 fighter planes of the Luftwaffe which made short work of the Red Air Force which were on peacetime status, with aircraft parked closely together in the airfields, making them easy targets for high-altitude bombers and the dreaded Stuka dive bombers of the Luftwaffe (Batty).
On the political front, even Stalin was aware of an imminent conflict with Germany and that the treaties they had would not last much longer as tensions between the two supposed allies were increasing as both sides began to sense the duplicity of the other. Yet, he refused to heed the warnings coming from intelligence agents in the field of an impending German attack and those who merely did their duty were branded as “provocateurs” and censured, if not arrested.
He even ignored warnings from British and American emissaries who were aware of the dangers, thinking it was a ruse to make him show his hand prematurely and not wanting to make the mistake Nicholas II did in 1914. Stalin held absolute power and did not permit any autonomy nor initiative among his subordinates (Salisbury 37). Although German aircraft hadalready been intruding into Soviet airspace, Stalin gave orders not to meet or engage them.
His hesitation proved costly as it sent a message to the Germans that the Soviets were complacent, making it the ripe time to attack. The first phase of the war began with air strikes on key military bases and cities to sow terror, panic and confusion as well as cripple and hinder Soviet forces. By the end of the opening phase, the Lufwaffe enjoyed total air superiority over Soviet territory, making them virtually unopposed as they managed to destroy a lot of Soviet aircraft on the ground and shoot down those that managed to take off but were inferior in quality.
This was followed up by a simultaneous attack by all three German army groups in their respective fronts and they were able to catch the Soviets off guard, resulting in numerous Soviet casualties and prisoners. They would duplicate the same tactic they did in Poland wherein they would bypass heavier enemy units and encircle them, cutting them off from any support and crush them. They would apply the same tactic as well on major Soviet cities, besieging them and starving their people although in the case of Leningrad, Hitler wanted it destroyed (Riasanovsky 518; Salisbury 40).
Surprisingly, they were happily welcomed by the civilian population in the Ukraine and the Baltic states who hated Stalin and his communist regime. For them, the Germans were liberators instead of invaders and this had helped the Germans gain a foothold into Soviet territory (Batty). However, by the fourth week of the campaign, the progress bogged down as the German forces were overextended and needed time to allow for support units to catch up. By the time they were able to resume again, winter had set in.
Even though it provided mobility due to hardened ground, the conditions were do dismal and German forces were beginning to understand now why Napoleon failed as severe blizzards wrought havoc on the invaders who were unprepared for “General Winter,” the same foe Napoleon faced and had proven to be a far more formidable foe than any army the Germans had fought. At the same time, fresh Soviet troops from the east were deployed and they fought doggedly and with more determination, further slowing down the German advance.
What had hoped to be finished in three to six months would run for four more years and would eventually bleed German resources dry. The Soviets may have been brought down initially but they were not out of the running as they managed to recover and become stronger in the latter phase of the campaign. In conclusion, Operation Barbarossa started off well but in the middle, it began to lose steam and thus forcing the Germans to fight a kind of war they did not want, especially against Russia which was a war of attrition.
It was considered a failure because the Germans failed to meet their objectives of capturing the key cities and failed to meet their timetable, causing them to be caught up in a winter war they were ill-prepared for. This was attributed to the constant delay of the commencement of the attack. The delay caused them to be caught up by the winter season and Hitler refused to heed his generals’ advice for a pause to allow the winter to pass.
Hitler’s obsession for going on the offensive caused the German forces to be stretched too thin making the rear areas vulnerable to stay-behind forces and partisan attacks which tied down his forces. The dogged and tenacious resistance put up by the Soviets despite their inferior quality bought time for them to transfer their industries to the remote regions beyond the Urals where they were safe from attacks or capture and enabled the Soviets to reconstitute their forces. Finally, they underestimated the capabilities of the Red Army, especially the Nazi leadership who looked down on the Slavs.
Finally, the Germans fought a war they did not want, a 3-front campaign: Western Europe, North Africa and Mediterranean and the Eastern Front which severely divided their forces and resources, not to mention fighting multiple enemies, especially with the entry of the United States into the war. The Soviets too had their faults which nearly cost them the war, and Stalin was to blame for decimating his officer corps during the 1930 purges. His “iron will” of not permitting retreat also caused numerous casualties and prisoners as his commissars and loyal commanders blindly followed his orders.
His saving grace was the leadership in the front provided by Zhukov who cleverly went around Stalin’s orders to husband his forces that enabled them to recover and regain lost ground in the subsequent battles owing to the characteristic resilience of the Russian forces, interspersed with patriotic fervor. The Soviets ay have lost the initial battles but they eventually won the war because of this and eventually took the war to the Germans and visited upon them the same havoc they wrought upon them. Works Cited “Barbarossa (June-December 1941). ” The World at War. Writ. Peter Batty. Thames. 1973.
Hitler, Adolf. “Mein Kampf. ” Hitler. Org. 1924. Retrieved 17 May 2010 <http://www. hitler. org/ writings/Mein_Kampf/>. Parker, Robert Alexander Clarke. The Second World War: A Short History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. A History of Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. Salisbury, Harrison E. “The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad. ” True Stories of World War II . Ed. Nancy J. Sparks. Pleasantville, New York: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc. , 1969. 35-63. Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960.


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