June 22nd in German History: Operation Barbarossa

German troops at the Soviet Border, June 22nd, 1941.

The Second World War has no shortage of turning points. While many events were critical to the course of the war, Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, may be the most important of them. On June 22nd, 1941, Germany declared war on the USSR, and German soldiers entered the country.

Adolf Hitler advocated for the invasion of the USSR first during the 1920s, when he wrote Mein Kampf while in prison. He thought the destruction of that nation was necessary if Germany were to dominate the world. Russia would provide Lebensraum, or living space, on which German settlers could grow food and expand the Arayan population. However, the realities of the 1930s forced Hitler to make deals with the Soviet Union, purchasing natural resources to fuel the German war machine. Most notably, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the East as Germany invaded from the West. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact promised nonaggression between the two powers, and it seemed as though the Soviet Union might function as an ally to Germany. This, however, was never to last. Hitler’s anti-Slavic racism and wild desire to destroy Communism pushed him to turn German armies on Russia even as Britain remained undefeated. The invasion was delayed several times, but on June 22nd it finally began. Initially, German troops fared extremely well. Massive numbers of Soviet soldiers were encircled and annihilated around Minsk, Kiev, and other cities as the Soviet air force, often caught unawares in its airbases, was destroyed from above. City after city fell in the first few months, and Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Premier, was pushed to desperation, ordering troops not to retreat even as German tanks outflanked their positions. As the Wehrmacht advanced, German soldiers massacred civilian populations and killed, either directly or through starvation and hard labor, millions of Soviet prisoners of war. However, the Soviet Union did not collapse as was expected. Although it suffered horrendous losses in men and equipment, the Red Army continued to put up stiff resistance and made Germany pay for the ground it took. German troops pushed all the way to the outskirts of Moscow, but could go no farther. They ran low on weapons and fuel, and were at the edge of their supply lines. As winter set in, soldiers suffered frostbite and found their weapons inoperable while their Russian opponents fared better in their heavier uniforms and wielding weapons designed for winter conditions. Further, the Soviet Union benefited from massive quantities of lend-lease from Great Britain and the United States, allowing it to focus almost solely on weapons production. Operation Barbarossa would end on December 5th, 1941, with German troops bogged down and the Red Army preparing for a counteroffensive.

Operation Barbarossa saw massive successes for the German Army. Ultimately, however, the millions of prisoners captured, the industrial centers occupied, and the truly unbelievable quantities of equipment captured, were not nearly enough. Russia still had enough soldiers, population, and industry to rebuild its army, stop the German advance, and eventually push into Germany. Germany fell into the same trap that Napoleon and earlier Sweden fell into. Namely, the idea that Russia, or any nation with a large territory and population, can be destroyed simply by a few battles.

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