In 1941, the German military rolled out one of the largest offensives in Human history. Despite major early successes the invasion eventually petered out due to extreme oversights. Adolf Hitler had grossly underestimated the Soviet’s power and overestimated the ease in which the Soviets would be conquered. The question though is why. Common knowledge in military history at this time warned of the dangers of invading Russia and yet still Hitler went through with Operation Barbarossa as it was called without much preparation for long drawn out conflict. This research looks into the motivations for this assault. Asking why Hitler and the German generals felt the USSR was weak enough to crumble and crumble quickly from a German onslaught and what exactly was of value to the Germans to risk such a major assault? The reasons go as far back as the Napoleonic wars and the ideologies of National Socialism to figure out why this great oversight happened.
Many people in Europe knew of the failed invasion of Russia in 1812 and considered it the reason why one does not invade Russia. At the time, French troops had entered into Russia, but the intense cold of Russian winters had done terrible damage to the French troops. Expecting a quick campaign, the French invasion was light on supplies and was not prepared for Russian winters. The loss of supplies meant that the French were reduced to eating their horses and there were many desertions. An eye witness to the campaign had this to say on the conditions of the French troops in Russia:
Those who had resisted cold weather and exhaustion succumbed to the torments of hunger; those who had preserved a little food were too weak to kept up with the march and were taken by the enemy; some had their limbs frozen and died in the snow; others fell asleep in villages and were consumed in fired lighted by their comrades.
Originally, common interests in Eastern Europe led the Germans and Soviets to work together to conquer Poland. The Soviets, nervous of western invasions sought to have a buffer zone of states to protect itself while Germany sought German dominance of the area as part of their own Nazi ideology. While the two nations were highly distrustful of each other given their war by proxy in the Spanish civil war and Stalin’s condemnation of the German expansions into areas like Czechoslovakia, the Soviets did come to the discussion table over the lack of commitment from any of the great Western powers as well as the failure of collective security. The two nations signed the Molotov- Ribbentrop act on the 24th of August 1939. This agreement “publicly promised friendship and mutual nonaggression but secretly divided eastern Europe into spheres of influence.” When this was enacted, the Soviet government was shocked by the speed of mobilization of the German troops and by how quickly they conquered most of Poland. Yet, but 1940, the Soviet Union had conquered its half promised in the Molotov-Ribbentrop act and the deed had been done. The Soviets had prepared for war against both Germany and Japan. Yet, after this treaty, the Soviet fear of axis attacks had lowered and left the Soviet borders with Germany open to attack while the Soviets fought with the Japanese. This and other factors had the Soviet Union open, unprepared, and completely not expecting German treachery on their pact.
The failed invasion of Russia in 1812 was well known by European and presumably by the German military command. Actions such as the scorched earth policy were well documented and it was considered quite foolish to invade Russia after the greatest general of the last century could not succeed. There must have been factors that caused the German high command to feel they could do what Napoleon could not, or that there was something in the Soviet Union that the German’s needed enough to justify their invasion in 1941.
One of the first signs to the Germans that the Soviet Union was a weak state date back to the First World War with the eastern front; of all the belligerents of World War One, the Russians lost more than any other power even with their early withdrawal. Estimates put the Russian casualties as high as 2 million. At the outbreak of World War One, the Russian army was technologically behind the other great empires and when facing against the technically advanced German army, even their superior numbers could defeat them. As for numbers, in 1914 there was less than one machine gun per thousand soldiers and as trench warfare became the norm, the use of machine guns became more and more important. The Russian industrial power was so weak that things like rifles and bullets were in short supply with less than one rifle per soldier and extreme rationing of ammunition. The Russian tactics were also way behind the age, them preferring to use bayonets rather than shooting, a tactic they had employed since the late 17th century, this going up against the mechanized infantry of the World War One German army. Very soon after the beginning of the war, the other nations of allied powers did attempt to supply the Russian army, but the supply lines were extremely long. By the second year of the war, every artillery shell had to travel 6,500km to get to the front lines, a rifle or machine gun bullet 4,000. Due to the agreement with France on the outset of war, Russia was also forced to attack before they could successfully mobilize their troops, claiming they would have at least 800,000 troops for the war against Germany 15 days into mobilization. Communication to and from the Russian commander General Samsonov was so bad that he had to use several cavalry divisions just to find out where his armies were located. The Russian hierarchy of officers was a mess of paper work and other problems as Lincoln put, “Men with intelligence and initiative turned bitter in their frustration at not being able to accomplish anything they thought worthwhile, while their mediocre associates advanced quickly thanks to their mastery of the army’s bureaucratic routines.” The major defeats of the Russian empire such as the battle of Tannenburg were brought about by the poor leadership, sub par equipment, and advancing before they were prepared were key in the Germans of the World War Two era seeing the Russians as not the same great armies of the Napoleon years, but as a weakened outdated military not prepared for the 20th century.
It was considered a sign of weakness for the Russian people when they overthrew their monarch and sparked the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. The book Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War, by W. Bruce Lincoln outlines the Bolshevik Revolution. It was a conflict of the oppressed peasant masses taking up under the new banner of the Bolshevik party, a communist party led by Vladimir Lenin. The government of the incumbent regime of the Czar of Russia Nicholas II failed to quell this uprising and over a period of five years Russia had become a battleground between the Communists and the ‘white’ Russians loyal to the monarchy. In 1917, the Czar and his family were brutally murdered by the Bolsheviks. By the end of the conflict, Lenin had been in poor health, and after a series of strokes, the leader died leaving the leadership of the new communist state to Josef Stalin. From the public perspective of Europe, the Russian emperor had been overthrown by what they would think of as a peasant uprising. It was only at this point when Stalin had taken over the Soviet Union did they ever experience the industrial revolution. Stalin had implemented harsh 5 year plans to industrialize and jump-start the Soviet economy. Called the ‘Stalin Revolution’ by some, Stalin also underwent a brutal campaign of eliminating people he felt were threats within the Communist party. Stalin purged the party of most of its members and solidified the party under his absolute rule.
The idea of the Soviets being a weak power was reaffirmed to the Germans when the Russians found themselves tangled up in warfare with the comparatively weaker nation of Finland. In 1939 the Soviets still at peace with the Germans invaded the small northern nation of Finland. While this was expected to be a quick victory, the Finns had a much smaller and less sophisticated military, the terrain turned out to be a major hurdle. Likewise the Finns had focused their entire military on defending the coast and were much more experienced in fighting arctic warfare. The Red Army invaded Finland without preparations for arctic warfare without much preparation time on Stalin’s orders. The invasion was conducted without a good amount of intelligence and terrain knowledge and only one railway line to Leningrad to supply the army. The strategy used by the Red Army was painfully predictable. Because of these failures, Stalin ordered the division commander shot and replaced them with even less experienced commanders, further evidence of the effect of Stalin’s purges on the military command. The next offensive was rushed in order to take advantage of clear weather with frozen ground and no snow for air support. The Finns eventually called an armistice in March of 1940, but at extreme cost to the Red Army’s personnel and equipment. The failure did lead to a giant examination of the red army forces and its command, but the failures of the invasion of Finland were known to Berlin and showed to them a sign that the Soviet army was a disorganized mess, waiting to be toppled over.
The Germans had many ideological reasons for feeling they were more powerful than the Soviets. First of all, the Nazi ideology of race places Aryans as a superior or master race. During the early period of Nazi rule the ideology of racial eugenics began to become implemented in Germany. People declared undesirable with bad genes would be forced into sterilization to contribute to the very peculiar German idea of Darwinism. Programs of euthanasia were common, children declared racially valuable would be kidnapped from their families, and fetuses would be aborted in cases such as mixed race pregnancies or Aryan non Aryan pregnancies. Undesirable groups such as homosexuals, the handicapped, and foreigners were eliminated. According to the writings of Adolf Hitler, the Aryan race of Germanic people when racially pure holds the noblest race and the founders of European civilization. The Germans were by Hitler’s writings the most intelligent and the hardest working individuals. The inventions and the superior courage of the Aryan people according to Hitler would and had a divine mandate to conquer, kill, and rule over the lesser races of the Earth. While this was based on the outdated idea of Social Darwinism and a flawed idea of evolution, the Nazi ideology was a powerful force in the German population and the confidence Hitler and the German high command had in their racial superiority to other races. They especially had a racial contempt for the Slavic people of Eastern Europe.
The Nazi opinion of the Slavic people of Eastern Europe and Russia was one of a weak and subservient people waiting to be controlled and enslaved by the superior Aryans from Germany. In the official writings of Hitler and the Nazi leaders there is actually not much written on Slavic people. One of the first definitions used of Slavs refers to the speakers of Slavic languages. They split Slavs into three major groups. Eastern Slavs consisted of Russians and Ukrainians, Western Slavs were Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, and Lusatian Sorbs and Southern Slavs were Bulgarians, Serbs, Croats, Macedonians, and Slovenes. Germany had allied with some of these nations such as Bulgaria, a country that even independently pursued a policy against Bulgarian Jews. Slovaks and Croats under Nazi control were allowed to keep their own puppet states, with military units modeled after the SA and the SS. Yet, the Soviet Slavic peoples (Ukrainians and Russians) were subject to annihilation policies from the first incursions into Soviet territory. Many Soviet citizens were enslaved by the Germans and sent to concentration camps. Those left behind were semi starved under German rule. The Ukrainians looked to the Nazis as potential liberators from Russian rule. The Germans even considered briefly a Ukrainian state. Hitler was staunchly against this policy however. Hitler very clearly mentioned that Ukrainians were racial inferiors and forbade social contact with them. The commander of the Ukraine, East Prussian Gauleiter Erich Koch treated Ukrainians like animals to the point where he even hunted them in special reserves. One of Hitler’s apparent sayings was a promise to limit the increase of the Slav races. The reasons Hitler rationalized why the Germans under Wilhelm II could not conquer Russia was to do with the leadership of the Russian empire not being Slavic at all but rather Germans ruling Slavs. This rationalization combined with the theory that Slavs actually could not form a strong nation on their own made Hitler and higher end Germans think that the USSR would be in a weak position due to the racial weakness of the Soviet Union’s government, which Hitler was not convinced was full of Slavs and run by Jews.
The Germans by the point of planning Operation Barbarossa had many good reasons to believe they were able to conquer the Soviet Union since their recent military campaigns in Europe had been astonishing successes. Much of this success had been through a tactic known as Blitzkrieg warfare. The tactic utilized the newer technologies of war in a way no other nation at the time employed and is studied in military strategy today. The tactic involved a short and intense highly mobile force of massed tanks and infantry sent in after a period of heavy shelling. The tactic also involved using overwhelming numbers and over armament to deal massive amounts of damage in an extremely short time. Though it was not expected to conquer France, when employed in a war that was expected to take years it had defeated France in a matter of months. Blitzkrieg was developed shortly after the First World War as a response to the stalemate caused by trench warfare and inspired by the Mongol hordes. The technique was essential for amazing successes in the speed of the German conquering of Poland and France in 1939 and 1940 respectively. The amazing effect of this German tactic led to an Axis control of continental Europe in an extraordinarily short time, likely giving the German commanders much more confidence that not only could the Germans defeat the Soviet Union in war, but that it would be finished in a very quick fashion which led to some of the major problems Germany faced when conducting Operation Barbarossa. When it was planned out, foresights like winter equipment seemed unnecessary as with the speed they conquered Poland, France and Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union would have fallen in a matter of weeks.
The Germans had several ideological reasons for the desire to conquer the Soviet Union as well. Adolf Hitler was driven largely by his ideology, and in the years after the death of President Hindenburg in 1934, he consolidated the roles of many members of distributed leadership to be solely under himself. Hitler essentially became the president, Prime-Minister, and C-in-C of the German armed forces by the outbreak of the German-Soviet war. Good evidence of such is the nationalist undertone of the first few years of the Second World War. Most of his major moves such as militarizing the Rhineland, annexing Austria, occupying the Sudetenland and demanding the Danzig corridor were done solely to “right the wrongs” of the results of the First World War. The first policy that factored heavily into the decision for the German invasion of the USSR was that of the policy of German settling of southeastern Europe on the black sea (modern day Ukraine) through a policy called Lebensraum or living room. The concept of Lebensraum is core to the Nazi ideology. One of the major goals of the Nazi party after unifying the German-speaking world would be to expand their ethnic and cultural borders. The goal was to expand areas for Germans to grow their master race and enslave or eliminate whoever lived there. This policy did require pushing back the Russian borders through warfare and the killing and enslaving of many Ukrainians to make new room for this German ethnic expansion. This was of course not the only ideology that motivated an invasion of the USSR, and while this was a part of the greater Nazi ideology for how to expand the German race, the Germans also were motivated by a drive to bring an end to communism.
National Socialism is a deeply anti-communist ideology. When Hitler campaigned he used the German’s fear of Communism to win political battles. The first major arrests and concentration camps were to deter Communist party members in Germany. It is believed that Hitler’s opposition to Marxist or Communist ideologies stems from the Nazi ideology rooted in Social Darwinism. It is theorized that Hitler’s conviction against Marxist ideals are rooted in that it denies the struggle of existence and did not allow the truly gifted individuals to succeed. He was a large supporter of private enterprise for likely a similar reason. When Hitler consolidated his power in Germany, one of his desires was to destroy Marxist labour movements. National Socialism was even sold to the Germans and people abroad that it was the movement of strong government as a bulwark against chaos and Communism. After the Spanish Civil war when Soviet and German troops crossed sabers and the Germans defeated the republicans to instill Franco’s rule, the idea of Germany being the shield against the spread of Communism was boosted greatly in Germany and abroad. This combined with the ideological nature of Hitler’s regime pitted Germany against the Soviet Union, the world’s first and at the time most powerful Communist state, in spite of the nonaggression pact.
The desire for Soviet territory was not simply for the ideological reasons of the National Socialist agenda, but the land they desired the most (the Ukraine) was extremely strategic in further war efforts. The strong push for Stalingrad by Hitler even against the better judgment of German generals was a clear sign that the Ukraine was an area he greatly desired. The policy of Lebensraum for the Ukraine was not an illogical choice. The Ukraine was considered the bread basket of the Soviet Union and contained much of the USSR’s farmable land. The city of Stalingrad was also the focus for a new strategic resource never before considered on the battlefield. The Caspian Sea was a source of petroleum, and holding the Ukraine would bean a giant source of oil for the German war machine as well as further restricting of supply lines for the Soviets.
So what factors were involved that pitted the Germans to make such a massive oversight of the Soviet power and ultimately become the downfall of the Third Reich? The weakness of Russia was seen through the early battles of the Second World War with early combat moves of the Soviets, the perceived weakness of a government created out of what would be considered little more than a peasant revolt, and the ideology of race trade marking the Nazi mindset making Slavic Russians seem inferior to superior German blood. Why was a soviet invasion desired? The push to move into the Soviet territory was not only to gain the fertile and strategic land of the Ukraine, but an ideological push to create more room to grow a master race of Germans as well as put an end to Communism, an ideology Germany had sold itself as the force against. These combined led to a belief that their superior guns and tactics would be able to break the Soviets superior numbers and bring an end to the Bolsheviks.
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