On the day Hitler ordered German troops to invade the USSR, at dawn on June 22, 1941, 80 years ago, he lost World War II. Operation Barbarossa, as the invasion was named in honor of Emperor Frederick I, made the defeat of Nazism inevitable, even though it also took the war to a level of savagery hitherto unknown: the Third Reich’s aim was not to defeat its enemies, and yes exterminate them. The remaining four years of conflict are among the bloodiest in history, not only on the fronts but also in the rear because that was when the systematic murder of European Jews began.
In his racial delusion, Nazi dictator Hitler thought that a country he considered populated by Untermenschen (sub-humans) would be subjugated in a matter of weeks, as had happened to Poland, France, and the Netherlands. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, a suspicious and ruthless mob killer, blindly believed –against contrary information he had at hand– that Germany would not break the non-aggression pact he had signed two years earlier. His army, decimated during the great purges, was by no means prepared. The cost of lives of this terror is impossible to measure; but Hitler did not know how to calculate the immensity of Soviet space, its capacity for industrial production, and the hundreds of thousands of reinforcement soldiers sent to fight from the confines of the USSR.
British military historian Antony Beevor, one of the great experts on the conflict, author of works such as Stalingrad and Berlin 1945. The Fall, responds with an “almost certainly” when asked whether the invasion sealed the fate of Germany. “This was because Hitler did not learn the lessons not only from Napoleon’s defeat in 1812 but mainly from the Sino-Japanese War of 1937, despite Chiang Kai Shek having German advisers,” Beevor says via e-mail. “If a defending Army, however poorly armed and untrained, has a huge mass of land to withdraw, then the attacker, however well trained and armed, will lose all his advantages. Hitler’s only hope of victory was to turn the invasion of the Soviet Union into another civil war by raising an army of a million Ukrainians and other anti-Soviets, as he was told to do, but he refused to put the Slav Untermenschen in German uniforms on principle. ”.
British historian Jonathan Dimbleby’s latest book, published in April, makes it clear from the title: Barbarossa. How Hitler lost the war (Barbarossa. How Hitler lost the war). “Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union was the biggest, bloodiest, and most barbaric military endeavor in history,” writes Dimbleby. “By the time his armies arrived at the gates of Moscow in less than six months, any prospect that Hitler might have had of realizing his delusional vision of a Thousand Year Reich had already vanished.”
All the numbers surrounding Operation Barbarossa are staggering: at 3:15 am, Berlin time, the German Army opened a 2,600-kilometer front, with the collaboration of its Italian and Romanian allies. A total of three million soldiers (148 divisions, 80% of the German army) participated in an offensive supported by 600,000 horses and 600,000 vehicles. “It should not be forgotten that the German invasion was basically a horse-dependent operation,” says American historian Peter Fritzsche, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois and author of landmark works such as Life and Death in the Third Reich (Life and Death). Death in the Third Reich). When the Russian climate befell the invading army, reliance on horses proved crucial.
The advance was swift and merciless – Beevor recounts in his book World War II that a cavalry unit was proud of having killed 200 enemy soldiers in combat and 13,788 civilians in the rear – but as the summer wore on, resistance became increasingly strong. increasingly intense at the front and guerrilla attacks multiplied behind the lines. Nazi brutality triggered a patriotic backlash, but also a desperate struggle to survive. Three million Soviet POWs died at the hands of the Nazis, two million of whom died in 1941, most of them from starvation. From this perspective, added to the ubiquitous political commissars in the Red Army, fighting was almost the only way to have an opportunity, however small, to get out alive.
In the fall, German supply lines began to break down with tens of thousands of soldiers, their horses and vehicles stuck in the mud. The Russian winter general rendered some German weaponry useless, while the soldiers did not have clothing suitable for Siberian temperatures: as Hitler thought the offensive would be a matter of weeks, he did not think of special equipment for the cold, equipment that Soviet soldiers possessed. The failure to take Moscow meant a point of no return in the offensive and in the war.
Although the Nazi troops had already put into operation units dedicated exclusively to the murder of civilians, with Operation Barbarossa the extermination of European Jews entered a new phase. Peter Fritzsche explains that “the advance of the offensive was immediately accompanied by murderous attacks against Jewish communities, including horrific pogroms that the Germans tried to instigate using the local population.” “Historians cannot agree on when the Holocaust was conceived as a final solution involving large-scale murder,” Fritzsche continues. “Possibly it was in the summer of 1941, in that spirit of euphoria unleashed by the offensive. On July 31, 1941, the explicit order to destroy Jewish communities, including women and children, was transmitted”.
Four units of the Einsatzgruppen –death squads– were mobilized behind the lines to carry out these massive murders. But there is now a consensus among Shoah historians that these massive murders could not have been carried out without the active complicity of the regular German army and local collaborators. “Operation Barbarossa was a turning point,” wrote Yona Kobo, a researcher at Yad Vashem and curator of The Onset of Mass Murder’s online exhibition on civilian victims of the invasion, which can now be viewed on the website of the Jerusalem Holocaust museum. “Until then, anti-Semitic measures consisted mainly of placing Jews in ghettos and concentration camps, but the invasion brought with it massive murder and then deportation to death camps. First, they murdered the men and then all the women, children and babies”.
By Christmas 1941 a million Jews had been murdered, most in the USSR. In 1942 the gas chambers began to function. “It is a grotesque irony,” writes Jonathan Dimbleby, “that the most unspeakable crime of the twentieth century was the only element of the Führer’s apocalyptic vision for the Third Reich which, until the last months of the war, was not overly hampered by defeat in the battlefield”.
Source: El País