Operation Barbarossa in World War II: History and Significance

Hitler's 1941 attack on the Soviet Union changed the world

German tanks in Russia during Operation Barbarossa
German approach a Soviet village during Operation Barbarossa.

 Fotosearch/Getty Images

Operation Barbarossa was the code name for Hitler's plan to invade the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. The audacious attack was intended to quickly drive across miles of territory, much as the Blitzkrieg of 1940 had driven through western Europe, but the campaign turned into a long and costly fight in which millions died.

The Nazi attack on the Soviets came as a surprise as Hitler and the Russian leader, Joseph Stalin, had signed a non-aggression pact less than two years earlier. And when the two apparent friends became bitter enemies, it changed the entire world. Britain and the United States became allied with the Soviets, and the war in Europe took on an entirely new dimension.

Fast Facts: Operation Barbarossa

  • Hitler's plan to attack the Soviet Union was designed to topple the Russians quickly, as the Germans badly underestimated Stalin's military.
  • The initial surprise attack of June 1941 pushed the Red Army back, but Stalin's forces recovered and put up bitter resistance.
  • Operation Barbarossa played a major role in Nazi genocide, as mobile killing units, the Einsatzgruppen, closely followed invading German troops.
  • Hitler's late 1941 attack on Moscow failed, and a vicious counterattack forced German forces back from the Soviet capital.
  • With the original plan a failure, Hitler tried attacking Stalingrad in 1942, and that too proved futile.
  • Operation Barbarossa casualties were massive. The Germans suffered more than 750,000 casualties, with 200,000 Germans soldiers killed. The Russian casualties were even higher, more than 500,000 killed and 1.3 million wounded.

Hitler going to war against the Soviets would prove to be perhaps his greatest strategic mistake. The human cost of the fighting on the Eastern Front was staggering on both sides, and the Nazi war machine could never sustain a multi-front war.

Background

As early as the mid-1920s, Adolf Hitler had been formulating plans for a German empire which would spread eastward, conquering territory from the Soviet Union. His plan, known as Lebensraum (living space in German), envisioned Germans settling in the vast area which would be taken from the Russians.

As Hitler was about to embark on his conquest of Europe, he met with Stalin and signed a 10-year non-aggression pact on August 23, 1939. Besides pledging not to go to war with each other, the two dictators also agreed not to aid opponents of the others should war break out. A week later, on September 1, 1939, the Germans invaded Poland, and World War II had begun.

The Nazis quickly defeated Poland, and the conquered nation was split between Germany and the Soviet Union. In 1940, Hitler turned his attention westward, and began his offensive against France.

Stalin, taking advantage of the peace he had arranged with Hitler, began preparing for an eventual war. The Red Army accelerated recruitment, and the Soviet war industries stepped up production. Stalin also annexed territories including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and part of Romania, creating a buffer zone between Germany and the territory of the Soviet Union.

It has long been speculated that Stalin was intending to attack Germany at some point. But it's also likely he was wary of Germany's ambitions and was more focused on creating a formidable defense that would deter German aggression.

Following the surrender of France in 1940, Hitler immediately began thinking of turning his war machine eastward and attacking Russia. Hitler believed the presence of Stalin's Red Army in his rear was a primary reason that Britain chose to fight on and not agree to surrender terms with Germany. Hitler reasoned that knocking out Stalin's forces would also force an English surrender.

Hitler and his military commanders were also worried about Britain's Royal Navy. If the British succeeded in blockading Germany by sea, invading Russia would open up supplies of food, oil, and other wartime necessities, including the Soviet munitions factories located in the region of the Black Sea.

The third main reason for Hitler's turn eastward was his cherished idea of the Lebensraum, the conquering of territory for German expansion. The vast farmlands of Russia would be extremely valuable to a Germany at war.

The planning for the invasion of Russia proceeded in secrecy. The code name, Operation Barbarossa, was a tribute to Frederick I, a German king crowned Holy Roman Emperor in the 12th century. Known as Barbarossa, or "Red Beard," he had led a German army in a Crusade to the East in 1189.

Hitler had intended the invasion to begin in May 1941, but the date was pushed back, and the invasion began on June 22, 1941. The next day, the New York Times published a page-one banner headline: "Smashing Air Attacks on Six Russian Cities, Clashes on Wide Front Open Nazi-Soviet War; London to Aid Moscow, U.S. Delays Decision."

The course of World War II had suddenly changed. The western nations would ally with Stalin, and Hitler would be fighting on two fronts for the rest of the war.

Russian tanks rushing to the front, June 1941.
Russian tanks rushing to engage the Germans during Operation Barbarossa.  Hulton-Deutsch/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

The First Phase

Following months of planning, Operation Barbarossa launched with massive attacks on June 22, 1941. The German military, along with allied forces from Italy, Hungary, and Romania, attacked with approximately 3.7 million men. The Nazi strategy was to move quickly and seize territory before Stalin's Red Army could organize to resist.

The initial German attacks were successful, and the surprised Red Army was pushed back along. Especially in the north, the Wehrmacht, or German Army, made deep advances in the direction of Leningrad (present day St. Petersburg) and Moscow.

The German high command's overly optimistic assessment of the Red Army was encouraged by some early victories. In late June the Polish city of Bialystock, which had been under Soviet control, fell to the Nazis. In July a massive battle at the city of Smolensk resulted in another defeat for the Red Army.

The German drive toward Moscow seemed unstoppable. But in the south the going was more difficult and the attack began to lag.

By late August, the German military planners were becoming worried. The Red Army, though surprised at first, recovered and began to mount stiff resistance. Battles involving large numbers of troops and armored units started to become almost routine. Losses on both sides were tremendous. The German generals, having expected a repeat of the Blitzkrieg, or "Lightning War," which had conquered Western Europe, had not made plans for winter operations.

Genocide as War

While Operation Barbarossa was primarily intended as a military operation designed to make Hitler's conquest of Europe possible, the Nazi invasion of Russia also had a distinct racist and anti-Semitic component. The Wehrmacht units led the fighting, but Nazi SS units followed closely behind the front-line troops. Civilians in the conquered areas were brutalized. The Nazi Einsatzgruppen, or mobile killing squads, were ordered to round up and murder Jews as well as Soviet political commissars. By late 1941, it is believed approximately 600,000 Jews had been killed as part of Operation Barbarossa.

The genocidal component of the attack on Russia would set the murderous tone for the rest of the war on the Eastern Front. Besides military casualties in the millions, civilian populations caught up in the fighting would often be wiped out.

Russian civilians digging anti-tank obstacles near Moscow.
Russian civilians digging anti-tank obstacles near Moscow. Serge Plantureux/Corbis via Getty Images

Winter Deadlock

As the Russian winter approached, the German commanders devised an audacious plan to attack Moscow. They believed if the Soviet capital fell, the entire Soviet Union would collapse.

The planned assault on Moscow, code named "Typhoon," began on September 30, 1941. The Germans had assembled a massive force of 1.8 million troops backed by 1,700 tanks, 14,000 cannon, and a contingent of the Luftwaffe, the German air force, of nearly 1,400 airplanes.

The operation got off to a promising start as retreating Red Army units made it possible for the Germans to capture several towns on the way to Moscow. By the middle of October, the Germans had succeeded in bypassing major Soviet defenses and were within striking distance of the Russian capital.

The speed of the German advance caused widespread panic in the city of Moscow, as many residents tried to flee eastward. But the Germans found themselves stalled as they had outrun their own supply lines.

With the Germans stopped for a time, the Russians had a chance to reinforce the city. Stalin appointed a capable military leader, General Georgy Zhukov, to lead the defense of Moscow. And the Russians had time to move reinforcements from outposts in the Far East to Moscow. Residents of the city were also quickly organized into home guard units. The home guards were poorly equipped and received little training, but they fought bravely and at great cost.

In late November the Germans attempted a second attack on Moscow. For two weeks they battled against stiff resistance, and were plagued by problems with their supplies as well as the worsening Russian winter. The attack stalled, and the Red Army seized the opportunity.

Beginning on December 5, 1941, the Red Army launched a massive counterattack against the German invaders. General Zhukov ordered an assault on German positions along a front stretching for more than 500 miles. Reinforced by troops brought in from Central Asia, the Red Army pushed the Germans back 20 to 40 miles with the first assaults. In time the Russian troops advanced as far as 200 miles into territory held by the Germans.

By the end of January 1942, the situation had stabilized and German resistance held against the Russian onslaught. The two great armies were essentially locked in a stalemate that would hold. In the spring of 1942, Stalin and Zhukov called a halt to the offensive, and it would be until the spring of 1943 that the Red Army began a concerted effort to push the Germans completely out of Russian territory.

Aftermath of Operation Barbarossa

Operation Barbarossa was a failure. The anticipated quick victory, which would destroy the Soviet Union and force England to surrender, never happened. And Hitler's ambition only drew the Nazi war machine into a long and very costly struggle in the East.

Russian military leaders expected another German offensive to target Moscow. But Hitler decided to strike a Soviet city to the south, the industrial powerhouse of Stalingrad. The Germans attacked Stalingrad (present day Volgograd) in August 1942. The assault began with a massive air raid by the Luftwaffe, which reduced much of the city to rubble.

The struggle for Stalingrad then turned into one of the most costly confrontations in military history. The carnage in the battle, which raged from August 1942 to February 1943, was massive, with estimates of as many as two million dead, including tens of thousands of Russian civilians. A large number of Russian civilians were also captured and sent to Nazi slave labor camps.

Hitler had proclaimed that his forces would execute the male defenders of Stalingrad, so the fighting turned into an intensely bitter battle to the death. Conditions in the devastated city deteriorated, and the Russian people still fought on. Men were pressed into service, often with hardly any weapons, while women were tasked with digging defensive trenches.

Stalin sent reinforcements to the city in late 1942, and began encircling German troops who had entered the city. By the spring of 1943, the Red Army was on the attack, and eventually about 100,000 German troops were taken prisoner.

The defeat at Stalingrad was a huge blow to Germany and to Hitler's plans for future conquest. The Nazi war machine had been stopped short of Moscow, and, a year later, at Stalingrad. In a sense, the defeat of the German Army at Stalingrad would be a turning point in the war. The Germans would generally be fighting a defensive battle from that point onward.

Hitler's invasion of Russia would prove to be a fatal miscalculation. Instead of bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the surrender of Britain before the United States would enter the war, it led directly to the eventual defeat of Germany.

The United States and Britain began to supply the Soviet Union with war material, and the fighting resolve of the Russian people helped build morale in the allied nations. When the British, Americans, and Canadians invaded France in June 1944, the Germans were faced with fighting in Western Europe and Eastern Europe simultaneously. By April 1945 the Red Army was closing in on Berlin, and the defeat of Nazi Germany was assured.

Sources

  • "Operation Barbarossa." Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction, edited by John Merriman and Jay Winter, vol. 4, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006, pp. 1923-1926. Gale eBooks.
  • HARRISON, MARK. "World War II." Encyclopedia of Russian History, edited by James R. Millar, vol. 4, Macmillan Reference USA, 2004, pp. 1683-1692. Gale eBooks.
  • "The Battle of Stalingrad." Global Events: Milestone Events Throughout History, edited by Jennifer Stock, vol. 4: Europe, Gale, 2014, pp. 360-363. Gale eBooks.