The day the world caught fire
PHIL KATZ charts the run-up to the most formidable and deadly invasion in the history of mankind – Operation Barbarossa – which took place 80 years ago today
TODAY is the 80th anniversary of Operation Barbarossa, when the German army and the full force of Hitler fascism attacked the Soviet Union, without warning, in breach of a non-aggression pact.
Operation Barbarossa took place at lightning pace on a sunny Sunday morning, June 22 1941, and immediately became the most formidable and deadly invasion in the history of mankind.
Worse was to follow. Much worse. Hitler referred to the assault as a “Vernichtungskrieg.” It was a war of destruction. The war for territory was a by-product of a war to the death between two world systems.
In fact Barbarossa was also the biggest and costliest military failure in modern history, with the Nazis unable to secure a single strategic objective and many millions of combatants and civilians killed and murdered.
The cruelty of the fascist forces has been too easily forgotten. Nowadays the talk among some schools of history and revisionist politicians is only of Soviet lack of preparation, bumbling (but no-one dare accuse them of cowardice), Stalin’s “mental breakdown,” purge-fallout, punishment battalions and massive losses, as if the Soviets “threw” troops to a needless death.
Britain and the war threat
With the Nazi seizure of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, following the great power carve-up at Munich and parcelling-off of her territory by arch appeaser Neville Chamberlain, war of some kind became inevitable. But who would be involved and when was not at all clear.
War came close on many occasions, as the cowardly and duplicitous leaders of Britain and France manoeuvred to point Hitler eastwards, against the Soviet Union.
Charitable historians today claim Chamberlain was an appeaser because he abhorred war, yet he was happy to let others fight and die, especially if they were Soviet citizens.
Without a single soldier, sailor or airman stationed in Poland, he decided to guarantee its borders.
The outcome of this was obvious. Hitler had made an art form of calling the bluff of his opponents and Chamberlain’s threat was brushed aside.
For us in Britain, the diplomatic charade ended and the shooting war began on September 1 1939.
Soviets threatened from west and east
Following an invasion of Manchuria in 1931 by Japan, the Soviets fought them in a slow-burn border war between 1932 and 1939.
At the battles of Khalkhin Gol on the Chinese-Mongolian border (May-September 1939) a Soviet army under Georgy Zhukov decisively defeated the Japanese army of the north, forcing Japan to sign a neutrality pact two years later.
We can only understand Soviet actions between 1931 and 1941 if we take into account her experience of being invaded in the east by Japan, going back to the war of intervention in January 1918.
The threat of a war on two fronts became all the more probable with the signing of an anti-Comintern pact bringing together Japan, Germany and Italy in 1937.
The rationale behind appeasement
The period 1939 and 1940 has been characterised as a “phoney war.” During this period the Soviets fought a “winter war” against pro-fascist Finland.
The phoney war turned into a real one in the spring. German forces struck in western Europe and in so doing, exploded a near decade-long strategy of the British ruling class of appeasing fascism.
Appeasement left us few allies of substance and unprepared for what was to follow.
The appeasers were steered by the “Cliveden set,” which included the aristocratic Astors (who had six MPs in the family), Lord Lothian (wartime ambassador to Washington), prime minister Chamberlain, Geoffrey Dawson, editor of the Times, and foreign secretary Lord Halifax.
The set wanted to allow Hitler a free hand in Europe, allowing the rulers of Britain to get on with the job of exploiting empire.
Cliveden believed there was space for coexistence between fascism and empire.
Phoney war turns real
Norway and Denmark were invaded on April 9. A month later, May 10, German tanks smashed into the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.
In just six weeks, France collapsed and Paris was taken. On June 23 Hitler visited the Eiffel Tower.
The outlawing of unions and the Communist Party, and imprisonment of deputies of the French assembly presaged a ”hollowing-out” of French democracy and treachery in high places.
Philippe Petain sued for surrender and handed over half his country to Nazism. In none of these countries was there robust and lasting military defence.
British plans to attack the USSR
In Britain, even as the Soviets sought to prevent the Finns from encroaching on Leningrad, Anglo-French generals (on Chamberlain’s watch) Weygand, Gamelin, Gort and Ironside, drew up plans to make war on the USSR.
If Britain had attacked the USSR (the staunchly anti-communist Imperial High Command planned to attack through Baku) it is highly unlikely that Hitler would have stayed out.
The Soviets would face war against Britain and Germany in the west and Japan in the east.
There were many, especially in the British military High Command, who thought the USSR, once invaded, wouldn’t even last six weeks.
Mercifully they were to be proved very wrong. But it was a close call. We would know more about Britain’s policy towards Hitler and the Soviets if access was allowed into MI6 files and the reports of British ambassadors in Paris, Berlin, Madrid and Rome from the 1930s. But they remain classified.
Molotov and Hess missions
Hitler’s stunning success in the west allowed him to plan a turn against the land of socialism.
The reasoning was simple. If the Soviets could be defeated, then Britain and the US would sue for peace as they were focused on Asia and Africa.
On November 10 1940 Vyacheslav Molotov — the Soviet foreign minister who slept with two loaded pistols under his pillow when he went abroad — met Hitler at the Bellevue Palace in the Tiergarten where Bismarck once lived.
It was a long meeting. Stalin sent him to try to get a measure of Hitler’s intentions.
Would Germany invade Turkey and Switzerland? How far advanced were the Germans in aerial power (Stalin, for good reason, was fixated on this issue).
Was Germany planning a separate peace with the British, before the US might join the conflict?
He was not asked to second guess whether the fascists would invade the USSR — it was more a question of when and where.
Six months later, flying in the opposite direction was Nazi Party leader Rudolf Hess, who parachuted into Scotland (May 10 1941), navigating perfectly the 1,000 miles from Bavaria and arriving at the door of the Duke of Hamilton, who was a friend of Churchill.
For decades this mission has been clouded in obscurity, and when pressed, the Establishment claim he was on a “peace mission” of Hess’s own making.
In fact it was a mission of war, meticulously planned in Germany involving Martin Bormann, who was Hitler’s closest adviser.
Hess’s stated aim was to negotiate a “peace” with Britain, “to free up forces engaged in the West that could be used against Russia.”
From Otto to Barbarossa
As soon as Molotov returned to Moscow — in fact the very next day — Hitler reshaped the original plans for invasion of the USSR, “Operation Otto” (started in July 1940).
The aim of Otto was to occupy the Soviet union on a line from Archangel on the White Sea in the Arctic north to Astrakhan in the Caspian Sea to the south.
This was to be completed within nine to 19 weeks. By March 1941, planners were working out the detail for invasion, renamed “Operation Barbarossa.”
Was Stalin ‘deceived’?
It is amazing that some historians today claim that Stalin was so easily deceived about Hitler’s war aims, that he was caught by surprise and was apparently unable to believe his own intelligence services, who repeatedly warned him what was about to occur.
Churchill did warn Stalin of impending invasion. What Churchill did not know was that Soviet agents were passing on daily bulletins from the very inner circles of Britain’s secret services. And these said invasion was not imminent.
But Hitler had set it all out in Mein Kampf, published in 1924. The Soviets translated the book in 1933 and circulated it around the politburo.
Historian Volkogonov refers to an annotated copy in Stalin’s personal library. Copies exist in the personal libraries of Kalinin and Khrushchev.
In it Hitler said he would at all costs avoid a war on two fronts. The war aims it set out for the east were to be different from any in the west.
He believed in the the racial theory of herrenvolk, the creation of a master race.
The underside of herrenvolk was untermenschen — people who did not deserve to live.
Herrenvolk sought lebensraum or living space. Spelled out in Mein Kampf in some detail was the plan to give living space to the herrenvolk.
The living space was in the east. It is a nonsense to pretend that the Soviets did not know what was coming.
The day the world caught fire
Barbarossa began at 3.25am on Sunday June 22. The same day, Molotov broadcast to the nation: “This war has been forced upon us, not by the German people, not by German workers, peasants and intellectuals, whose sufferings we well understand, but by the clique of bloodthirsty fascist rulers of Germany who have enslaved Frenchmen, Czechs, Poles, Serbians, Norway, Belgium, Denmark, Holland, Greece and other nations.”
But it was to be a war to the finish.
This article is the first in a two-part series. Read part two in tomorrow’s paper. Phil Katz is the author of Freedom From Tyranny — The Fight Against Fascism and the Falsification of History (Manifesto Press).