Remembering Operation Barbarossa
Many in the West expected a swift and easy victory over the USSR for Hitler — including the Fuhrer himself. They didn’t count on the iron will and enormous capacity for sacrifice of the world’s first socialist state, writes JOHN ELLISON
80 YEARS AGO on June 22, 1941, the armies of Nazi Germany swept across the frontier of what was then the Soviet Union along a front exceeding a thousand miles.
Over three million soldiers, including Finnish troops to the north and Romanian troops to the south, with thousands of tanks and aircraft to the fore and fortified by the war industries of already occupied countries, constituted the Nazi attacking force.
Brutality against civilians was to be unconfined. Hitler’s hopes were high given his low opinion of the Soviet peoples’ ability to resist. The invasion followed a series of devastating blitzkrieg strategies beginning with that against Poland in September 1939.
Hitler expected victory within four months. Instead came resistance, tens of millions of deaths and the comprehensive eventual defeat of the Nazis by the Soviet Union and its Western allies.
No demands or direct warnings from Berlin to the Stalin-led Soviet leadership preceded the invasion, decided on by Hitler in mid-December 1940: Operation Barbarossa was intended to destroy the world’s first socialist state, however flawed its socialism and its leader and to seize its resources, especially its oil and grain.
Russian-born British journalist Alexander Werth, flying out to Moscow with an early British military mission, was to be an influential war reporter. In the mid-1960s he produced Russia At War, a vivid history integrating personal reminiscence with detailed research.
Richard Overy’s scholarly, highly readable and more recent account was followed by Catherine Merridale’s gripping Ivan’s War, which, from interviews with veteran survivors and Soviet archives, wove personal stories of Soviet soldiers into the larger history.
The disaster for those invaded was enormous. Stalin’s refusal to accept that war was coming earlier than he anticipated, his paranoid pre-war officer corps purges, a Red Army strategy of “offensives only” in response to attack and technical inadequacies in military preparations, all contributed to the rapid advance of Nazi forces and the capture of millions of Soviet soldiers.
Yet resistance was fierce amid chaos and as the invaders pushed forward, an extraordinary transfer of many factories from west to east was to underpin future victory.
At least two thirds of the entire German armed forces were assigned to the eastern front throughout. By late 1941 the assault on Leningrad was contained and that on Moscow was forced back.
The German war machine’s reputation for invincibility had been destroyed. By early 1943 the Nazis had lost the battle for Stalingrad and six months later came the decisive tank-centred battle at Kursk, leaving the Soviet Union with superiority never afterwards shaken.
On the invasion date, National Labour MP and castle owner Harold Nicolson announced to his diary: “And if, as is likely, Hitler defeats Russia in three weeks, then the road to the oil is open, as also the road to Persia and India… I feel that they are so incompetent and selfish that they will be bowled over at a touch.”
Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) Sir John Dill gave the Soviet Union six weeks. His subordinate, Alan Brooke, Britain’s Home Forces commander, soon to replace Dill, was, like Hitler, willing to allow the Soviet Union as much as four months before defeat.
Coalition prime minister Winston Churchill, by contrast, guessed that “the Russians” would still be “fighting victoriously” two years later.
The war’s character for socialists was transformed by Churchill’s enthusiastically expressed intention in his radio broadcast on the evening of the invasion to give the Soviet Union the firmest support.
Though driven chiefly by commitment to safeguard Britain’s imperial position, his expressed dedication to war to victory alongside the Soviet Union coincided with the interests of the mass of British people.
The assault on Bolshevism had been long promised. Years before Hitler’s accession to power, backed by German generals and funding from German industrialists and bankers for whom the suppression of opposition parties and the establishment of concentration camps for communists and others was acceptable, the Nazi leader had published Mein Kampf.
Expressing Nazi government policy, intentions were made plain in Mein Kampf’s 1936 edition: “If we speak of land in Europe today we can only think in the first instance of Russia and the border states under her influence. Fate itself seems here to point the way forward for us…The giant state in the east is ripe for collapse.”
The Franco-led generals’ revolt against a democratically elected Spanish government that year was supported by the Nazi military with much Downing Street tolerance. On September 4 1936, Hitler’s number two, Hermann Goering, told the Nazi cabinet that the Soviet Union was German’s primary enemy. The “showdown with Russia is inevitable.”
In May 1937, a new British ambassador to Berlin, Sir Nevile Henderson, was favourably impressed by the regime, as his own later memoir tells us. He found the Nazi Party and the German press “still hard at work… beating the anti-Bolshevist drum.”
Chamberlain’s “appeasement” government in March 1938 raised only an eyebrow at Hitler’s takeover of Austria. In September Chamberlain gave a “peace in our time” message after giving a green light to the Nazi seizure of the Sudetenland. But he declared “enough was enough” in March 1939, when the remainder of Czechoslovakia was digested.
Then with Anglo-British commitment to defend Poland against aggression theoretically in place, the two governments made a show of seeking an additional guarantee for Poland’s security from the Soviet Union.
But it was only a show. The negotiators were not empowered to agree a solid, three-sided, united front and were unwilling to pressure Poland into agreeing to the passage of Soviet troops through its territory.
With war declared, Chamberlain and his associates remained open to peace negotiations with the Nazis and closed to anything more than defensive action.
Until April 1940 the war was at sea and otherwise chiefly on paper, symbolised by mass leaflet droppings on German soil and by a French government keener to imprison Communists than to fight Nazis.
It was in this context that communists and others on the left such as Aneurin Bevan, DN Pritt and Konni Zilliacus had to wrestle with how much the war was a fight between imperialist powers and how much it was an anti-fascist one.
The Churchill government continued to include Chamberlainite ministers — including Chamberlain. In June 1940 a Communist Party manifesto justly called for the removal of friends of fascism “from all commanding positions in the government, armed forces, civil service and industry” and for resistance to “fascist invasion and tyranny.”
Denied a united front against Nazi expansionism by Britain and France, the Soviet Union, Hitler’s primary target, had in August 1939 accepted a non-aggression pact offered by Hitler.
It meant that he could concentrate first on war against the refusers of collective security, while the Soviet Union was to be allowed more territorial security through occupying eastern Poland, forced rectification of its border with prospective Nazi ally Finland to protect Leningrad and later occupation of the Baltic republics.
Though referred to often as “Hitler’s ally,” the Soviet Union remained formally and actually neutral until invaded. Meeting longstanding Soviet ambassador Ivan Maisky on October 6, 1939, Churchill, then 1st Lord of the Admiralty, stated that his starting point was that the basic interests of Britain and the Soviet Union did not collide anywhere and he welcomed not only Soviet neutrality but “friendly” neutrality. He readily accepted self-protective advances by the Soviet Union into eastern Poland and the Baltic states.
Churchill’s support for the Soviet Union was, in time, to prove qualified. Britain was militarily much strengthened by the entry into the war of the US in December 1941, but a major second front in western Europe against Germany (compelling large transfers of Nazi soldiers from the east) was opposed by Churchill (and CIGS Alan Brooke) for almost three years before the Normandy landings in June 1944.
Meanwhile, most of the fighting and sacrifice was left to the Red Army, while Nazis and their local collaborators were massacring millions of Jewish people at Auschwitz and elsewhere. As Red Army soldiers got closer to Berlin, British ruling-class loathing of communism became more visible again. The Cold War was coming